Deal of the Day: Shipping deadlines have passed, and malls are crowded. What now?
By now, shopping procrastinators who want to purchase an actual gift may need to consider a virtual one.
Those braving battling the last-minute sales at stores may find deals, but experts say only in certain categories such as outerwear, sweaters and high-end flat-screens. Online shoppers, meanwhile, are running up against many retailers' order deadlines for holiday delivery — unless they're willing to shell out for expedited shipping.
Enter the e-gift. E-commerce research firm Elastic Path estimates 27% of shoppers will make a present of a virtual gift such as e-books, apps or Facebook credits this year. The number of retail chains offering gift cards sent via email or cellphone has also jumped, with more than half now offering such options, according to surveys from CreditCards.com and Bankrate.com. "People feel more comfortable buying and receiving digital gifts," says Judd Lillestrand, chief executive of gift-card comparison site ScripSmart.
[See also: Tips Gift-Giving on a Budget]
Although fast processing and delivery are a boon for last-minute shoppers, there's an obvious downside: Nothing impressive to unwrap. At most, buyers can opt for a print-out page confirming their gift, if they'd rather not have the recipient emailed directly. And even electronic delivery isn't instant. Those who wait until late on Christmas Eve may not have anything to present, says Lillestrand, who notes delivery can be within several hours — or a few days. Returns are also iffy, so it's up to the buyer to check fine print like exchange policies and expiration dates before buying.
Here are four virtual gifting options for budgets both big and small:
Daily Deal Vouchers
If yoga classes, a massage, skydiving or a fancy dinner out are on the list, deal sites including Groupon.com, LivingSocial.com and their 600-plus competitors — which usually offer discounts of 50% or better — are worth perusing. "There's no question that deal sites are positioning themselves as holiday shopping destinations," says Dan Hess, chief executive of deal-tracking site DealRadar.com. Some sites are willing to take the price off the voucher so the recipient doesn't know how much was spent (or saved), he says. But deals carry more fine print these days, too, so it's worth checking to make sure the offer isn't restricted to first-time customers only or has a fast-approaching expiration date.
Shoppers who know there's already an iPhone, Kindle Fire, Nook or other device under a recipient's tree can sweeten the present with e-books, digital music and other content. Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble all have gifting options for web purchases, letting buyers send the recipient an email notification that a particular book is theirs for the downloading. Most also offer e-card options, which might be the better bet for givers that don't know the current extent of the recipient's virtual library. Purchases of a particular title often can't be exchanged.
[See also: 10 Hottest Holiday Gadgets of 2011]
Electronic ticketing became more prevalent this year, and last-minute shoppers may be able to find seats to National Football League games or early access to summer concerts, says Mike Janes, chief executive of FanSnap.com, which compares secondary market prices across resale sites. Box office prices can often be cheaper than at resale, and offer e-ticket options too, he says. Shoppers should also compare commissions and other fees on comparable seats, which can change the price. Although tickets can't always be returned, they can at least be resold.
Starbucks, Best Buy, Gap and American Express are among the brands that recently introduced virtual gift cards. Before buying, check to see if the card can be redeemed in stores as well as online — 30% of e-cards can't, Lillestrand says. That could be a bad deal if the recipient doesn't do much shopping online, allowing some of the still-prevalent inactivity fees to eventually kick in. It's also worth checking gift card resale sites such as CardAvenue.com and PlasticJungle.com, which often sell electronic cards for less than face value.