Ivy Wu did not immediately need the navy lace cocktail dress she ordered the other day. But when a representative from Shoptiques, an e-commerce site, arrived at her midtown Manhattan office with the dress only hours after Wu, 26, had placed her order, "I was really impressed that it was here," she said.
This holiday season, same-day shipping replaced free shipping as the new must-have promotion. It's logistically complicated and money-losing and may not even be a service consumers want or need, analysts say. But retailers from Wal-Mart to small shops like Shoptiques are willing to take the risk. Even the Postal Service introduced a same-day option for retailers.
And the reason is simple: fear of Amazon.com.
Amazon, the world's biggest online retailer, has hinted that it will expand its same-day shipping service, giving customers the immediate gratification that has been the biggest advantage of brick-and-mortar stores.
For small outfits, it is not an easy proposition. The courier who showed up at Wu's office was Shoptique's head of boutique operations, who put aside her regular job this holiday season to make deliveries.
Bigger retailers, such as Toys "R" Us, Macy's and Target, have worked with eBay to deliver items the same day, as have other old-line stores. Google has begun testing a local delivery service with several chains.
"There's lots going on in this space, and it's all driven by Amazon," said Tom Allason, founder and chief executive of Shutl, a British same-day delivery service that will expand to the United States next year. "It's not really being driven by consumers at the moment."
The same-day delivery idea was a spectacular failure during the dot-com boom. Companies like Kozmo.com and Webvan went under because the service simply cost too much to be profitable.
Amazon has offered same-day shipping since 2009, but with limits only in big cities near Amazon warehouses on certain items ordered in the morning.
The geographical limits exist because Amazon built warehouses far from major cities to avoid charging sales tax in certain states. But it has now given in on the sales tax fight, and in return, is erecting warehouses near cities such as San Francisco, which analysts say is paving the way for faster, more widespread same-day delivery and spurring competitors.
"It's the old idiom, 'Time is money,' " said eBay spokeswoman Lina Shustarovich. "How much time are you saving by not going to the store? People want it now, they want it fast."
Wal-Mart, which is the nation's biggest retailer but sells just a fraction of what Amazon does online, is testing same-day shipping during the holiday season in five markets. It gives shoppers a four-hour delivery window and charges $10. The idea is "to give customers convenience, by way of combining our online shopping with the local presence of stores," said Amy Lester, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman for global commerce.
But the test is showing that consumers often pick next-day delivery rather than same-day, Lester said. She declined to give a specific figure for same-day orders, but said thousands of same- and next-day orders had been placed.
Net-a-Porter, a designer apparel e-commerce site, said its same-day service is quite popular. Its $25 delivery service in London and New York pays for itself, said Alison Loehnis, managing director, but clients are accustomed to paying for concierge service, like a customer who ordered clothing delivered the same day to her private jet before a vacation.
With the eBay Now iPhone app, introduced this year in San Francisco and New York, customers choose an item from physical stores and eBay sends a courier to the store to pick it up and drop it off at an apartment, office, coffee shop or bar for a $5 fee.
eBay wouldn't say whether it loses money on the service, but analysts who study logistics say it is not profitable.
"The goal with this pilot was never to monetize," Shustarovich said. But it could make money in the future, she said, if retailers for example pay eBay a fee for bringing them customers.
The Postal Service is testing same-day service in San Francisco. Consumers can order items until 2 p.m. from 1-800-Flowers.com, the first retailer offering the service, and a postal employee will pick up the package and deliver it between 4 and 8 p.m.