The Perils of Online Christmas Shopping

Despite the fact that we live in the DC Metro area and thus relatively near a myriad of terrific shopping opportunities, my wife and I are big online shoppers. We’re members of the Amazon Prime program, which provides free 2-day shipping on anything purchased through Amazon that’s actually sold by Amazon, a surprisingly wide array of things. We rent all our movies from Netflix rather than going to local rental stores. I was buying coffee online from the same Atlanta-based company for more than a decade until they radically upped their shipping charges.

Given this background, it’s no surprise that we do a large amount of our Christmas shopping online. We’ve both been doing this for several years, gradually increasing the percentage to the point where we go brick-and-mortar only when forced–and actually forgoing borderline wants that aren’t available online.

This year, oddly, it’s really backfired on us. Both of us have had substantial problems with Amazon and my wife has encountered frustration with Bath and Body Works as well.

Two of the four items I ordered from Amazon, ahead of the deadline they e-mailed me for absolutely guaranteeing that the items would arrive in time for Christmas, did not. One of the items was out of stock and canceled two days after my order, ensuring that there was not time to order it elsewhere. Thankfully, I live close enough to a high-end shopping mall that, for the mere investment of two hours of traffic and dealing with crowds that I was trying to avoid in the first place, I was able to get it. I received a shipping notification saying that a second item had just shipped yesterday and would not arrive in time for Christmas.

My wife has several items that she ordered that have also not arrived. She had grown concerned about her B&BW order and phoned them yesterday and was assured that, if the item didn’t arrive yesterday, they would absolutely get it here today. The Postal Service and UPS have run and no shipment.

My sister-in-law, who flew in from California, also was expecting to get an item delivered here from Amazon that she had ordered at the last minute and paid for next day delivery on. They shipped it 3-day standard, ensuring it will arrive just in time for New Years.

Were we buying presents for small children, or living in Two Dot, Montana, this would all be more than just merely annoying. Frankly, if we get a couple of our Christmas presents on the 27th, it’s not that big of a deal. But it could just as easily have been The Toy that a 6-year-old had been dreaming about for months.

How is it that companies whose sole enterprise is selling goods online and shipping them out to customers can be so inept at that basic task? Amazon has been at it more than a decade now; you’d think they could handle it. And it’s not like the fact that sales go through the roof in the month of December is a big shock, nor is the fact that those items are needed NLT the morning of the 25th a state secret. If the surge is so overwhelming that they simply can’t handle it, it’s a relatively simple matter to move up their “guaranteed by Christmas” deadline a couple of days.

Rest assured, Amazon will not be getting my Christmas money next year. If getting stuff on time matters to you, I wouldn’t recommend them, either.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. You think you have it bad! LOL! My Christmas sucks!

  2. James Joyner says:

    Pretty crappy, indeed.

    We did almost miss a USPS delivery this morning, as I was in the shower when they came and my wife and family were out marketing. Thankfully, they returned just as the truck was about to drive off.

    Why USPS doesn’t just leave the damned package like UPS and FedEx, I don’t know. The notion that someone is going to be home during the day is ridiculous.

  3. SoloD says:

    I have noticed a marked decline in Amazon this year. We have experienced shipping delays and one of the presents that my brother-in-law sent arrived with a mere shipping label slapped on the box, not wrapping or anything, thus assuring that my three year old would get his Spiderman tent on Dec. 17th, rather than on the 25th.

    I wonder if Amazon sales will suffer next year, since they seem to be doing such a poor job this year.

  4. McGehee says:

    one of the presents that my brother-in-law sent arrived with a mere shipping label slapped on the box, not wrapping or anything

    Same thing happened with an item my wife ordered for me. And since I was the one who found the box and brought it inside…

  5. Anthony C says:

    Sorry to hear about that – must be annoying.

    I don’t know where I’d be without Amazon (both British and American branches) and I have to say that I haven’t experienced any problems on the scale you have. That said, there have been a few niggling points in the past month:

    – A family member wanted a Nintendo Wii for Christmas. Amazon instituted the very sensible policy of only permitting as many pre-orders of the system as they knew they could fill based on the numbers allocated to them on the release date. I signed up for an email alert to inform me when the system was available for pre-order. No email came. Luckily, I happened to have the day off the day it was up for pre-order and was lurking on the site anyway, so I was one of the people who was able to pre-order before it sold out (in the first seven minutes). If I hadn’t decided to take things into my own hands I’d have been completely stuffed, waiting for an email alert that would never come. I specified first class post when making the order (one grade down from express delivery). I did not expect it to arrive on the day of release. However, not only did it not arrive the Friday it was released, Amazon did not even dispatch it until the following week, several working days later. Given the massive amount of warning involved, I am completely at a loss to understand why it took so long. Again, in practice, not a real problem – but enough to be annoying.

    – I’ve also had a problem with last order dates, albeit of a more minor one to yours. My last order of the season was for a book and a CD. A minor purchase, but one that would round off two people’s hauls of gifts. I assumed this would be unproblematic as a) the items were marked as “In Stock” and b) I had not missed the last pre-Christmas dispatch date for first class post and indeed it stated at the item description that I should choose First Class or Express Delivery in order to get the item for Christmas. Smashing. However, upon moving to the final checkout screen, I was told that first class postage would not get to me for Christmas and that I would have to use Express delivery, which costs over four times as much as first class. Because of the relative lateness, the only way I could guarentee to get the items in question was to go ahead with the Express delivery order. Given that every other indication asserted that first class shipping for Christmas was still available, I find it pretty annoying.

    – Finally, and this is a general issue rather than a Christmas specific one, I understand why it is that when items reach the “being prepared for dispatch” stage it becomes impossible to change the order (cancel items, change payment options, delivery address etc) but it seems to me that once it goes to that stage, the item should at least be pretty near to the point when it would be posted off. There have been a few times recently when ten or fifteen minutes after placing an order I’ve either had second thoughts or decided to add something to the order to save postage, only to find that it has moved onto the final preparation stage – and yet has then proceeded to not actually be posted off for up to 48 hours after that point. This used not to be the case, but now seems to be happening with increasing frequency. I suppose there may be a good explanation for it, but I find it irritating that the window of opportunity seems to be increasingly tight (often a matter of minutes) after which the time to final dispatch seems to be increasingly leisurely.

    None of this means that I don’t still find Amazon to be a terrific resource, but it is enough to take a little bit of the sheen off from time to time.

  6. Len says:

    Sorry you had problems, James. My experience this year with Amazon was just the opposite of yours. I really procrastinated this year. For some reason, I just couldn’t get into the “consumer spirit.” I ordered several gifts from Amazon, for delivery to several different addresses, much later than I should have. I fully expected that at least a few items would be arriving after Christmas Day.

    Much to my surprise, and in spite of my lack of spirit, all items were delivered on time — the last arriving yesterday.

    I’ve been ordering from Amazon for several years and have never had a problem. Guess I should count my lucky stars, huh?

    Happy Holidays!

  7. Anderson says:

    Been there, JJ. My commiserations.

    What especially p.o.’s me is, paying exoribitantly high “overnight” shipping fees … then not getting the package on time, and me not getting my shipping fee back.

    It’s like, “I didn’t pay you $20 extra to *try* to get the package to me on time.”

  8. Len says:

    Why USPS doesn’t just leave the damned package like UPS and FedEx, I don’t know. The notion that someone is going to be home during the day is ridiculous.

    You probably should be thankful that they don’t.

    There was a story on our local news this evening about a couple that has been following UPS trucks around for the past couple of weeks. Whenever the drivers would leave a package on somebody’s porch, they would wait until the driver had driven away and then steal the package. They had collected quite a haul before the cops finally caught up with them.

    I would rather they leave our packages with a neighbor (do they do that anymore?) than on the porch for anybody to take.

  9. pmetro says:

    with the small amount of shopping I do online, generally I have found it to be reliable and on time. But I assume with all the effort put into website management on large sites that have been in business for many years that; A: the correct item is delivered, B: it’s in stock if it’s listed on the webite (otherwise noted out of stock etc.) C:That the vendor has properly noted shipping times and disclaimers. D:Increased site traffic is noted and adjustments made (item not available or guaranteed to be delivered on time).
    Since most shipping can be tracked there should be a refund or discount if the parcel is late. Some problems posted here sound like stressed out labor and rushed work.

  10. I have done substantially more shopping with Amazon in the last six months and again in the last six days than ever before without any prolems. I am sorry your experience is less rewarding.

    Perhaps Amazon has some issues to work, but as a practical matter, some of these problems were eminently predictable yet still beyond their control. Without question the use of on-line ordering has exploded, yet the capacity of the carriers to deal with the phenomenon has not. There are still only so many trucks and drivers, and given their stress levels this time of year, it is quite understandable that you cannot get the same level of service from, say, UPS, that you would get in the middle of March.

    If there is a lesson here, it might be to start one week earlier and these problems will go away. Amazon certainly shouldn’t make promises it can’t keep, but I was amazed that they were able to ship some items so close to Christmas and still get them there.

  11. anjin-san says:

    Amazon’s shipping is so-so and their customer service is terrible. They need to address these issues as their customer loyalty has to be eroding. Someone who is willing to work a little harder will come along and clean thier clocks. I did get 2 beautiful Armani shirts from Amazon this year at giveaway prices.

    Had good experiences with both this Christmas and last. is a very good outfit that has high quality mearchandise at hefty discounts. Some items are seconds so you have to read item descriptions carefully. is a good place for menswear.