Less than three weeks to go before Christmas nervous time in the online retail world where reputations, even entire businesses, can be won or lost by the ability to wrap and ship in time for the big day.

Except this season, the pressure seems to be easing.

Retailers and shippers have learned from past glitches, with the biggest improvements coming in the unglamorous logistics area, where stocking, shipping and consumer research are the tools of the trade.

"We try not to fall behind," said Brett Morrison, founding partner of Los Angeles-based Onestop Internet which handles online sales for several local premium denim brands that include 7 for All Mankind LLC, Earl Jeans and L.A.-designer Trina Turk.

This is Morrison's third holiday season and he now knows to hire six more staff members to his team of 25, just to handle holiday orders. "Once you fall behind, you cannot catch up. It's impossible," he said.

Last year, only 9 percent of shoppers nationwide said that their orders arrived later than the day promised by the retailer, down from 15 percent in 2002, according to JupiterResearch. But for the unlucky 9 percent, it's not easy to forgive the retailer and much easier to forget them.

The online comparison shopping site Shopzilla found that 50 percent of shoppers reported being "very concerned" to "extremely concerned" about receiving their purchases in time for the holidays.

"If a store doesn't deliver on time, it is very unlikely that a consumer is going to buy from them again," said Jupiter retail analyst Patti Freeman Evans.

Learning about inventory
As holiday shopping becomes a clicking frenzy, with consumers dropping more than $300 million online the day after Thanksgiving, the first couple of weeks in December will be a packing and shipping frenzy for online retailers. This year, the cutoff for orders that are ground shipped is around Dec. 15, while air delivery can go as late as the 22nd.

"Retailers have gotten much better at managing online operations," said Freeman Evans. "They've probably learned about inventory levels, how customers behave. They've only had a couple of years experience at this, so before, who knew?"

Trendy Westside boutique Intuition started an online store three years ago, and owner Jaye Hersh says she's getting the hang of it. "At first we were really chasing the business because we didn't know," Hersh said.


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