U.S. postal worker delivering Amazon packages.

Like everything else this year, holiday shopping is going to be much different because of COVID-19.

Delays in both supply chains and shipping could make finding the perfect gift—and getting it delivered on time—more challenging. So consumers need to adjust their expectations, and the way they shop. We've come up with some smart strategies to help out, which you can read below. 

Dele Lowman Smith, for instance, isn't sure she can rely on Amazon this holiday season. The Atlanta-based executive recruiter has been a longtime Amazon Prime shopper, but during the pandemic she felt that the online shopping giant let her down.

In the spring, she ordered dog supplies for Midnight, the African Basenji mix that she and her 8-year-old daughter adopted earlier this year. Despite paying $119 a year for Prime, which promises one- and two-day delivery, she didn’t receive her packages on time.

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So as the holiday season approaches, Lowman Smith is rethinking her relationship with the company.

"My confidence in Amazon took a hit since the pandemic, and it hasn't completely bounced back," she says. "So with the supply chain being what it is, when I'm shopping for fall sweaters and last-minute books I might have to be a little more creative."

Amazon may be the biggest online retailer, but it's not the only one facing supply and delivery problems.

On-time delivery for major carriers—including UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, and FedEx (the first two carry packages from Amazon)—has been significantly worse this year, says Kirsten Newbold-Knipp, chief growth officer for Convey, a shipping technology vendor.

In September, for instance, 80 percent of deliveries were on time, down from 87 percent a year earlier. That's still better than the 72 percent on-time rate in May, during the early months of the pandemic. 

"This holiday season is going to be a roller coaster," Newbold-Knipp says. 

“My confidence in Amazon took a hit since the pandemic, and it hasn't completely bounced back.”

 Dele Lowman Smith

The pandemic has also caused slowdowns before the package even gets to the shipper. Amazon’s warehouses and supply chains, for instance, have been experiencing delays.

"The fourth quarter is setting up for an amazing quarter of sales," says Tom Forte, senior research analyst with D.A. Davidson. "But I think Amazon may not be able to manage the demand surge." 

Amazon declined to provide details on how it plans to respond to shipping challenges this holiday season. But the company did email a statement:

"We continue to make regular, critical updates to our logistics, transportation, supply chain, and other processes, while adhering to extensive health and safety measures to protect our associates as they pick, pack and ship products, to meet our demand and improve delivery speeds." 


Go to Consumer Reports' Holiday Gift Guide for updates on deals, expert product reviews, insider tips on shopping, and much more.
 

How to Get Gifts on Time

How can you make sure gifts arrive in time for the holidays? Here are some strategies, whether you're ordering from Amazon or other retailers. 

Shop early. One reason shoppers wait until the last minute—or at least until Black Friday—is that they’re hoping for a great deal. This year, holiday sales are starting early, so you don’t have to worry as much about missing the best price.

"Retailers want to spread out demand because they know they can’t handle what's coming at them on Black Friday and Cyber Monday," says Newbold-Knipp. 

In fact, the holiday sales season essentially kicked off with Amazon Prime Day on Oct. 13 and 14, and many more deals will be available by the beginning of November. Newbold-Knipp suggests that Prime Day served as a dress rehearsal that could help the company fine-tune its shipping logistics for Black Friday and beyond.

"We're going to see shortages and late shipments," says Sucharita Kodali, a principal retail analyst at Forrester. "So you need to shop early or you'll be stuck with a lot of random stuff." 

Cast the net widely. While one-stop shopping at Amazon is both easy and a good way to save on shipping, this year you may have to consider other options. If you’re looking for hot gift items that are in short supply, you may need to jump on them wherever and whenever they're available and accept shipping costs as part of the deal. 

"Consumers learned during the heart of the pandemic that they can't rely on Amazon for everything," Davidson's Forte says. "For hot items like the new PlayStation and XBox, you're probably going to have to consider Walmart, Target, eBay, and GameStop, as well as Amazon."

Kodali from Forrester also suggests checking manufacturer sites, which might have better availability than retailers this season, as well as your neighborhood walk-in store.

Factor in shipping. Amid all the uncertainty, one thing is clear, according to several analysts: Shipping will tend to be more expensive this fall because of increased demand and COVID-19 precautions. 

Convey's Newbold-Knipp reports that the major parcel carriers are adding surcharges ranging from $2.50 to $5 per package. "It almost doubles the cost of shipping," she says. "And retailers selling things like $25 stuffed animals have such tight margins that they can't absorb that." 

Though Amazon is likely to subsidize the delivery costs of items this fall, as it always has, other retailers may not be able to do that. Some will probably institute or raise thresholds for free or reduced shipping, and others will increase delivery times, perhaps making five-day shipping the standard and charging more for a shorter turnaround. 

Savvy consumers can adopt a two-pronged strategy. The first is to look carefully at shipping costs and factor them into the total price when comparison shopping. The second is to consolidate orders with retailers that are offering the best shipping deals. "You should think about buying more stuff at once," Newbold-Knipp says.

You can sidestep the problem of slower and more expensive shipping by ordering online and picking up your items at a local walk-in store. Expect many retailers to encourage this practice by offering curbside pickup as well as incentives like lower prices, and better availability for the most desirable items.

Sign up for alerts. Most retailers offer tracking info, either online or through text alerts. And though you might not need to monitor the journey of every pair of socks you order, for special gifts it's smart to keep an eye on whether the item has shipped and when it will actually arrive.

"If you know about a shipping delay early enough, you have the opportunity to shop somewhere else," Newbold-Knipp says. And flexibility is important: A gift in a second-choice color still beats an empty box and an apology.