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ANALYSIS-U.S. retailers want shoppers to help Santa with curbside pickup

Dec 18 (Reuters) - With homebound Americans making record numbers of online holiday purchases and snowy streets worsening a logjam for shipping companies, retailers are enticing shoppers to pick up orders in person to ensure their stockings are stuffed Christmas morning.

Long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine shipments have further complicated the picture for retailers, who hope drivers for Uber, DoorDash and other gig economy firms will help them avoid a nightmare before Christmas.

The worst-case scenario is that “presents could be sitting in a retailer’s warehouse or stuck in one of the carriers’ sort centers as opposed to under the Christmas tree,” said Trevor Outman, co-chief executive of shipping consulting firm Shipware.

After online spending surged during the early part of this year’s coronavirus pandemic, retailers and shippers teamed up to get a head start on holiday promotions beginning in October.

Yet procrastination remained as big a holiday season tradition as greeting cards or eggnog. Some 54 percent of shoppers plan to purchase their last gift during the week leading up to Christmas, according to a survey released Thursday by the National Retail Federation, a trade group.

An anticipated surge in e-commerce, combined with heavy snowfall throughout the Northeast, could delay many deliveries, carriers have warned. United Parcel Service, FedEx and DHL have been enforcing volume agreements with retailers, meaning there are times when packages do not get picked up.

The website for Danish jewelry company Pandora A/S has a clock counting down days, hours, minutes, and seconds for its Christmas Eve delivery deadline: Thursday, Dec. 17 at 11:59 p.m. EST. Last year, the retailer, which has partnered with UPS for eight years, set a deadline of Dec. 19.

“The last four to five days before Christmas, we’ll be focused on click-and-collect as a primary vehicle to drive sales among people online,” Sid Keswani, President of Pandora Americas, told Reuters.

Walmart, Best Buy, Apple, and LVMH-owned Sephora are among more than two dozen major retailers advertising turnaround times as fast as two hours for curbside pickup and buy-online-pick-up-in-store, according to a Reuters tally. 

“We’ve gotten to a point where, if you didn’t shop early, you’re kind of out of luck, especially with the big storm on the East Coast,” said Gabriella Santaniello, founder of retail consulting firm A Line Partners. “You have to do curbside. You don’t have a choice.”

On Tuesday, Walmart penned a blog post alerting readers “there’s still time to sleigh the holidays” with contactless curbside pickup and delivery.

A candy cane-colored banner splashed across Macy’s website greets shoppers with “Get your gifts by Christmas!” and offers three options: store pickup, contact-free curbside pickup and a new same-day delivery in partnership with DoorDash.

Regional department store chain Belk is offering up to an additional 15% off purchases to encourage pickup. Rival J.C. Penney is offering 10% off click-and-collect orders. 

Nordstrom, advertised free gift wrap for shoppers who collect orders in stores.

Some say this approach is at odds with messages from public officials advising people to stay home as coronavirus cases rise. Retailers have responded by spelling out the safety measures they have taken.  

DECK THE HALLS WITH FAST DELIVERY

UPS, FedEx and USPS “are already strapped for adequate capacity to handle 3 billion parcels between now and Christmas, which is 800 million more than the same period in 2019,” said Satish Jindel, president of delivery tracking and management firm ShipMatrix.

“If they have to divert resources to transporting Covid-19 vaccine shipments, it will create further delays in delivery of holiday online orders,” Jindel said of UPS and FedEx.

The crunch gives Target and Walmart an opportunity to show off their robust curbside operations. Target owns same-day delivery provider Shipt and Walmart has built up its network of delivery drivers. Amazon also uses gig Flex drivers to augment delivery.

Gig delivery services, with millions of drivers ready for last-minute orders, could have an outsized role, retail and shipping experts said.

Uber’s drivers, who have struggled during the pandemic, are making home delivery of presents. “Succulents to your sister” to “homemade pie to your nephew,” the rideshare app advertised.

Retailers including PetSmart, Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond , MAC and Sephora have bolstered same-day delivery partnerships with crowd-sourced companies including DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates.

FastAF, which uses micro-fulfillment centers to deliver hot products like Dyson Airwrap and Nintendo Switch to people in New York City and Los Angeles within two hours, said its partnership with DoorDash allows it to bypass traditional shippers.

“People who used to be taxi drivers or Uber drivers have started... delivering packages,” said Andy Halliwell, UK-based international retail strategist at Publicis Sapient. “We’re seeing sedans driving around streets full to the brim of Amazon parcels or ASOS parcels.” (Reporting by Melissa Fares in New York, Nivedita Balu in Bengaluru and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Vanessa O’Connell and David Gregorio)

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