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The advice to start shopping early has come from everywhere — economists, retailers, media, supply chain experts — as a way to beat the product shortages and shipping delays that are currently pummeling the global supply chain and threatening to derail millions of Americans’ holiday gifting plans.

Scott Price, the international president for shipping giant UPS, sounded the warning bell back in September, telling the AFP wire service, “I half-jokingly tell people, ‘Order your Christmas presents now because otherwise on Christmas day, there may just be a picture of something that’s not coming until February or March.’”

A perfect storm of conditions — a global surge of demand for consumer products throughout the pandemic, Covid-related shutdowns in Chinese manufacturing centers and shipping ports, and US labor shortages in trucking and other logistics-related industries — has resulted in major backlogs at US ports, triggering fears of empty shelves and unfulfillable e-commerce orders.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) is still predicting a blockbuster holiday season, forecasting that holiday sales during November and December will grow between 8.5% and 10.5% over 2020 to between $843.4 billion and $859 billion. Addressing the supply chain concerns, NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay noted in the report, “Retailers are making significant investments in their supply chains and spending heavily to ensure they have products on their shelves to meet this time of exceptional consumer demand.”

Logistics experts are also cautiously optimistic. “Christmas is indeed happening, though the shape of holiday peak will be different this year,” Mark Manduca, chief investment officer for GXO, a leading global logistics firm, tells CNN Underscored. “Based on what we’re hearing from customers, the peak consumer shopping season could look more like a five-to-six-week time frame rather than a more normal two-to-three-week period.”

So, with less than one month before Black Friday and the official start of the holiday shopping season, what can shoppers do to make sure they beat the bottlenecks? A few key strategies and a little creativity will go a long way, say experts.

1. Think fast shipping — or no shipping

“This is the year that you want to go from placing an order to having the goods in your hands as quickly as possible,” Brendan Witcher, vice president/principal analyst, Digital Business Strategy for Forrester Research, tells CNN Underscored while recommending the “buy online, pick up in store” option that grew in popularity during the pandemic. “A smart move by consumers this year will be to shop with retailers that have already offered this kind of omnichannel service because it means they have put in the infrastructure to source items from other locations throughout their network.”

For consumers that still want to stay out of stores, Witcher mentions buying online and doing curbside pickup or utilizing a retail locker.

“Another way of ensuring that you have the products that you need this year is to pay close attention to delivery times and use same-day or next-day delivery whenever available,” Witcher adds.

Shoppers also need to keep a watchful eye, because it won’t be business as usual everywhere this season. On Amazon, for example, items marked with the Prime label might not always come with the regular two-day shipping guarantee, cautions shopping expert Trae Bodge. “I think you can count on Amazon Prime where it is two-day shipping, but you can’t assume it will all be two days; you have to read closely and see what Amazon is telling you,” she says. “If it’s Prime, but still two to three weeks for delivery, I don’t know if I would trust it.”

Witcher also advises shoppers to look for retailers offering assurances that products will arrive on time for holidays: “That’s a great way of whittling down the list of places you choose to shop with.”

Holiday shipping deadlines to keep in mind

We’ve compiled a list of deadline dates to be aware of, according to each shippers’ website, to ensure your orders arrive on time. These dates could change, so check their sites if you think you’re cutting it close.

USPS, continental US:
• December 15: USPS retail ground service
• December 17: First-class mail service (including holiday greeting cards)
• December 17: First-class packages (up to 15.99 ounces)
• December 18: Priority mail service
• December 23: Priority mail express service

USPS for Air/Army/Fleet/Diplomatic post office addresses:
• November 6: Retail ground service
• December 9: Priority mail and first-class mail
• December 16: Priority mail express military service

USPS Alaska and Hawaii:
• December 17: Hawaii to/from mainland — priority and first-class mail
• December 18: Alaska to/from continental U.S. — priority and first-class mail
• December 21: Alaska to/from continental U.S. and Hawaii to/from mainland — priority mail express

FedEx
FedEx’s money-back guarantee is suspended for FedEx Express services for which it was previously reinstated November 1, 2021, through January 16, 2022.

• December 9: Ground economy
• December 15: Ground and home delivery
• December 21: Express saver
• December 22: Two-day and two-day a.m.
• December 23: Overnight services
• December 24: Same-day

UPS
The UPS service guarantee is still suspended for most services due to Covid-19.

• December 9: Ground economy
• December 15: Ground and home delivery
• December 21: Express saver
• December 22: Two-day and two-day a.m.
• December 23: Overnight services
• December 24: Same-day

2. Be smart about when to buy what

Start shopping now for anything you absolutely have to have, retail experts are saying. If your list is full of items from popular holiday gift lists, for example, expect supplies to go quickly and prioritize those purchases. “If you have a child who just has to have that PlayStation 5, or if your teen has their heart set on a pair of shoes trending on TikTok — you don’t want to wait to buy those things,” says Bodge. Ditto if you’re fixated on a particular brand. If, say, a blender won’t do if it’s not KitchenAid, start early in case your favorite brands run into any supply chain problems. Indeed, popular brands such as Adidas, Crocs, Hasbro, and Stanley Black & Decker have already warned of disruptions heading into the holiday rush.

Popular holiday gift categories and categories where supply chain issues have been particularly acute are also more likely to potentially face greater shortages. According to Adobe’s Holiday Shopping Forecast 2021, expect apparel, sporting goods, baby products and electronics to be the most affected categories.

“Do not wait to shop for anything with a chip,” warns Bodge, referencing the ongoing chip shortage. “Smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, et cetera — look for those items now.” And, while Bodge normally says the best time to shop for toys is in December, this year, she says, “If anyone is asking for a toy that is on multiple ‘hot toy’ lists, I would try to get those now.”

Shoppers don’t have to go into full-blown panic mode for gift ideas with greater flexibility, she adds. “And for things like stocking stuffers and holiday-themed items, I think you’ll be okay to wait,” she says.

The good news is that retailers have moved up their sales and deals to keep pace with the expected addition of early shoppers, so consumers don’t necessarily have to wait until Black Friday or Cyber Monday to start saving. Those who do wait are taking a calculated risk, explains Witcher. “You have to weigh the willingness to say, ‘I need it and I’m willing to pay for it now’ versus ‘I want to wait to see if it goes on sale’ and risk having it no longer be available,” he says.

3. A little creativity goes a long way

This holiday season may be the time to stretch gifting strategies and look for alternate ideas that are not beholden to inventory levels. “Subscription gifting is going to be great for this year. You can get something that comes every month — and the subscription starts after the holidays, so you’re not worried about something arriving on time,” says Witcher. With a wide variety, including popular brands like Ipsy, Blue Apron and Birchbox, as well as MasterClass for online learning content, subscriptions could help shoppers satisfy a lot of people on their buying lists this year.

Gift cards are another safe, non-product bet, and something that Bodge predicts will be “wildly popular this year, especially later on in the season.”

Also an option, but a little trickier, are gifts of services or experiences. While a gift certificate for a spa day or a trip to Disney has always been a good holiday indulgence — and is definitely safe from supply chain issues — there is still the Covid factor to consider. “Booking services or travel experiences is still kind of dicey at this point,” says Bodge, noting inconsistencies in travel restrictions and individual comfort levels as potential snafus. “You have to know for sure if your aunt is ready to go into the salon to get her hair done.”

4. Enlist some tech help

Another smart bet is to put your browser to work for you by installing extensions from deal sites like Honey or Slickdeals, which Bodge recommends not only for the deals, but for the online community aspect which may be helpful for getting a scoop on hard-to-find items. “You can post something on a community board on Slickdeals, for instance, and someone from within the deal-seeker community there might say, ‘Oh, I saw one of those at my local Best Buy,’” she explains.

Inventory-tracking websites such as HotStock, NowInStock.net, and Stock Informer are also helpful for sleuthing hard-to-find items, especially for in-demand toys and hot electronics like gaming systems and consoles. And, for shoppers who are very comfortable with advanced technology, there are also shopping bots that can make purchases for you once a particular item is located. This kind of artificial intelligence, says Witcher, “is still very new. If you want to trust your shopping behavior to an automated system, go for it; but if you’re risk averse, that’s not the best way to go about it.”

Ultimately, Witcher says, this can still be a season to be jolly: “I think that savvy consumers, who are willing to put some time and effort into their shopping, are going to be just fine for the holidays.”

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