Amazon

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If anyone knows the pitfalls of online shopping around Christmastime, it's Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN).

You know the drill: There's just over a week remaining until Christmas, and you're nowhere near finished with your shopping. But you can't possibly hope to order something online and receive it in time without paying exorbitant shipping fees, right?

Keep calm and order on ...
As it turns out, Amazon just gave you some much-needed breathing room.

On Tuesday, Amazon announced that it has extended its holiday shipping deadlines, allowing customers who place an order by 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 19 to select the "Free Shipping" option and still receive their package before Christmas day. Better yet, Prime Members can order to the same effect with free shipping by Dec. 22. Alternatively, Prime members can still receive their Christmas goodies on time by ordering as late as Dec. 23 and then selecting the one-day shipping option for as little as $2.99 per item.

Better better yet, customers in 12 major metro areas will be able to choose from roughly a million eligible items for same-day delivery -- which is just $5.99 per shipment for Prime members --  by ordering as late as 10:00 a.m. on Christmas Eve. Those areas include Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. 

If all else fails, Amazon also offered the quasi-tongue-in-cheek option to "give the gift of Prime or send an Amazon.com gift card" on Dec. 25.

Amazon's end-game is clear
But this isn't an entirely selfless move. In fact, Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) already beat Amazon to the punch last week by announcing that it would guarantee Christmas Eve delivery for items ordered with standard shipping by Dec. 19. Of course, there's a bit of one-upmanship involved, with Amazon showcasing its Prime membership advantages, but you can't help wondering how much caving to Wal-Mart's pressure factored into Amazon's decision.  

And make no mistake: This is a bold move for both retailers, considering FedEx and UPS last week both suspended their respective money-back guarantees for ground deliveries until after Christmas. Remember, both shipping stalwarts suffered from widely publicized holiday package delays last year as they were overwhelmed by demand.

Then again, note that UPS has already announced that it will hire between 90,000 and 95,000 seasonal employees to support the anticipated holiday surge -- compared with "just" 55,000 last year -- indicating that they have no intention of causing a bottleneck this time around. FedEx was less specific in its own holiday hiring announcement but did state that it expects seasonal positions to exceed the 20,000 it added for the peak holiday shopping period last year.

In any case, Amazon is surely trying to wring every last cent of consumers' shopping budgets out of the crucial holiday season. And it's hard to blame them: For the current quarter, analysts are expecting the online retail juggernaut's sales to grow 16.3% year over year to a whopping $29.75 billion. For perspective, Amazon's own guidance calls for fourth-quarter sales to be between $27.3 billion and $30.3 billion, representing growth of between 7% and 18%.

In the end, though Amazon generally doesn't make a habit of trying to appease Wall Street's short-term oriented demands, you can bet that both Amazon and its investors would prefer that it come in at the high end of that range.

Steve Symington has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, FedEx, and UPS and owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.