How Is COVID-19 Changing Americans’ Online Shopping Habits?

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– Liisa Ecola, Hui Lu, Charlene Rohr, RAND Corporation

Months into the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, Americans’ online shopping habits are continuing to shift. We documented changes in online shopping habits at the beginning of the pandemic, comparing patterns from January and February (before the pandemic) with patterns from mid-March and April (when lockdowns and other restrictions were beginning).

We now present findings from an August 2020 RAND American Life Panel (ALP) survey, in which we followed up with approximately 1,900 of our original respondents. In this survey, we asked respondents how often they shopped online in July and August. This survey reflects not only how often people are shopping online and whether they are spending more or less on online shopping, but how shopping behaviors have (or have not) changed since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have divided our respondents into three categories on the basis of how often they shop online: frequent(once a week or more), occasional (a few times a month) and infrequent (never or almost never) online shoppers.

In January and February, our respondents were roughly equally split between these categories, as Figure 1 shows. This pattern changed substantially: Online shopping became more common as COVID-19 spread. This change has persisted as the pandemic continues. By August, about 45 percent of our respondents were frequent, one-third were occasional, and only one-quarter were infrequent online shoppers.

Figure 1. Changes in Online Shopping Frequency from February to August 2020

February August Frequent 35% 45% Occasional 36% 32% Infrequent 29% 23% SOURCE: Authors’ calculations using 1,883 responses in the ALP surveys that were conducted in May and August 2020. NOTE: Respondents were asked the following question: “Over the past month, how often did you do online shopping or get home delivery of any products, including meals, groceries, medication, clothing, books, or other products?” Responses are weighted using sampling weights, as described in Carman and Nataraj, 2020.

By summer 2020, overall trends in online shopping had substantially changed, although these changes were by no means universal. The frequency of online shopping has continued to increase; frequent online shoppers have risen from 35 to 45 percent of all shoppers, even as 55 percent of respondents stuck with their prepandemic habits. Forty percent of our respondents were spending more money online, even as 20 percent were spending less. These trends reinforce what other data show: Although many households have been able to pivot to working and shopping from home, some of those in less-fortunate circumstances are cutting back.

In the August survey, we also asked respondents to estimate whether the amount of money that they had spent on online purchases had gone up or down since February. Specifically, we asked respondents whether their spending had doubled, increased by a smaller amount, stayed about the same, or decreased. We cannot calculate exactly how much more or less households are spending, but these responses do provide some sense of changes at the household level.

Thirty-nine percent of Americans reported that they had increased their online spending—11 percent estimated that they had doubled their spending and 28 percent estimated that they had increased it by a smaller amount. Forty-three percent reported spending about the same amount of money, and 19 percent reported spending less.

Unsurprisingly, people who said that they shopped online more frequently were generally spending more on online purchases, although the pattern is not clear-cut. Of those who were shopping online more in July and August, about half were also spending more money. About 42 percent said that their spending had not changed, and 9 percent said that it actually had decreased. Among people who were doing the same amount of online shopping or were shopping online less often, 32 to 35 percent were spending more and about 25 percent were spending less.

Which demographic factors are related to spending patterns? The most noticeable factor is age. Nearly half of people under 35 reported spending more money online than before the COVID-19 pandemic started (including about 17 percent who doubled their spending). However, only 31 percent of people over 65 reported spending more money on online shopping and only 5 percent doubled their spending.

Around 19 percent of respondents said that they were currently spending less online. The main reason appears to be a change in employment status: Of those who lost or left a job since the pandemic began and were no longer working, 28 percent said that they were spending less money on online shopping. (However, 12 percent of this jobless group reported doubling their online spending; they might have experienced an increase in income from Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security [CARES] Act unemployment benefits, although we did not ask respondents how much they were receiving in unemployment.) In contrast, only 16 percent of those who were still working at their prepandemic job in August had decreased their spending. People who were not working before the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., retired people) and people who were temporarily laid off or switched jobs during the pandemic fell in between; 19 and 22 percent spent less online, respectively. Figure 2 shows the relationship between employment status and changes in online shopping.

Figure 2. Changes from February to August in Online Shopping Spending by Employment Status

NOTE: Because of rounding, some numbers do not add up to exactly 100 percent.

Household income seems to be related to spending on online shopping, although perhaps not in the expected direction. Households earning less than $40,000 were more likely to decrease their online spending than higher-income households since March, but they were also most likely to double their online spending within the same time period. It is possible that these households are still spending less in total dollar value than other households, even if they have doubled their spending.

Further research is needed to explore all of the factors that might explain these changes in shopping habits; the COVID-19 pandemic has led to drastic changes beyond employment status and earnings. Moreover, although online shopping behavior has changed during the pandemic, it is unclear whether such trends will continue in a postpandemic world.

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