UPDATE 10/7/21: USPS has released their official holiday shipping deadlines. We’ve added the information to the appropriate section at the bottom of the article.
Shipping anything around the holidays has always been stressful. You don’t want to send gifts too early, but you also don’t want them to arrive after Christmas. Finding that sweet spot will be even trickier this year as shipping delays once again rock the nation.
Pandemic-related boosts in online shopping prompted $791.70 billion in consumer spending last year, up 32.4% from 2019. As spending ramps up in the coming months, suppliers will struggle to keep up with the heightened demand. Material shortages, shutdowns, staffing inefficiencies and various other factors will only make matters worse.
Shutdowns and the Supply Chain
Shutdowns have affected nearly every business since the start of the pandemic. As the virus spread, various levels within company supply chains ceased operations. Factories, distribution centers and ports all hit pause, which created a massive backlog on orders that affects lead times to this day.
Now, suppliers, manufacturers and shoppers have the delta variant to worry about as well. The more recent spread already forced a two-week shutdown at one of China’s busiest ports. Meanwhile, one-third of Vietnam’s garment and textile factories have halted operations to mitigate the spread of this highly contagious variant. Odds are the virus will create additional disruptions as the holidays grow closer.
A global chip shortage and a limited supply of parts and materials have caused supply chain bottlenecks, too. In the plastics and rubber sector, lead times are the longest they’ve been in 35 years. Copper and steel are in short supply and more expensive than ever, and suppliers are quickly running out of tech devices that contain these materials. Therefore, you can expect smaller inventory and longer shipping delays if you wait until the last minute to purchase gifts online.
Short-Staffed and Struggling
Unemployment levels have been on a steady decline since April of last year. However, they’re still 3.5% higher than pre-pandemic levels, meaning many businesses are short-staffed and struggling to keep up with a growing demand for goods and services. The U.S. Postal Service has been dealing with similar challenges.
Earlier this year, Congress enacted an emergency federal employee leave that allows postal workers 600 hours of paid time off for COVID-related reasons. Because most staff qualify for such assistance, many have taken advantage of the system and called off. As a result, customers have tracked packages only to watch them sit at USPS facilities for days — if not weeks. Delays will likely become even more severe if the few employees who remain burn out and quit their jobs.
Traffic Jams and Transportation
As if widespread shutdowns and increasing consumer demand weren’t stressful enough, traffic jams have been causing major delays at airports and shipping harbors. One cargo ship even got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days this March, causing backups for nearly a week. Large retailers like Amazon and Walmart are still facing the aftermath of this incident, and consumers could experience a ripple effect of delays for months to come.
Consumers should also expect shipping delays due to contractual complications. The Longshore and Warehouse Union contract expires in less than a year, and negotiations could turn ugly. Even as the Biden administration pledges to invest $17 billion in port infrastructure, this aid will do little to alleviate transportation disruptions, especially before the holidays arrive. As major retailers fight for shipping container space, ports will likely experience even more bottlenecks and backups, further delaying distribution.
When to Ship Your Gifts
Consumers will face any number of unprecedented delays this holiday season, so when’s the best time to ship gifts?
First, you must receive online orders in time to send them out, which means you should probably start shopping now. Order electronics, plastic toys and other items that are in low supply as soon as possible, preferably within the next month. Then, you can wrap them up whenever they happen to arrive.
While you can choose whichever shipping service you please, all of them are likely to experience delays. Pay attention to shipping deadlines as you prepare to send gifts out and opt to ship them sooner rather than later.
Use the guide below to determine domestic shipping cutoff dates and plan your trips to the post office, FedEx and UPS.
USPS Shipping Deadlines
- Ground Delivery: Dec. 15
- First Class Mail (including greeting cards): Dec. 17
- First Class Packages (up to 15.99 ounces): Dec. 17
- Priority Mail: Dec. 18
- Priority Express Mail: Dec. 23
FedEx Shipping Deadlines
- SmartPost: Thursday, Dec. 9
- Ground Delivery: Wednesday, Dec. 15
- Home Delivery: Wednesday, Dec. 15
- Express Saver: Tuesday, Dec. 21
- Two-Day Services: Wednesday, Dec. 15
- Overnight Services: Thursday, Dec. 23
UPS Shipping Deadlines
- Ground Delivery: Wednesday, Dec. 15
- Three-Day Select: Tuesday, Dec. 21
- Second-Day Air Services: Wednesday, Dec. 22
- Next-Day Air Services: Thursday, Dec. 23
Play It Safe
The best way to ensure packages arrive on time is to shop early and ship soon. This tip is especially crucial for those planning to mail gifts internationally. Because there aren’t any guidelines or shipping cutoff deadlines available, estimated arrival dates are just that — estimates. It’s best to play it safe and don’t procrastinate.
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