An Amazon worker wearing a mask stands in front of a row of Amazon packages

An Amazon worker delivers packages amid the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in Denver, Colorado, U.S., April 22, 2020.

Photo by REUTERS/Kevin Mohatt

Online shopping was increasing gradually even before the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic began.[1] With stay-at-home orders in place around the country, a huge increase in people ordering everything from groceries to clothing to household supplies online might be expected. Although shopping habits are complex and the demand for certain goods shifted with the pandemic, the inability to shop in person and the high percentage of American households with access to the internet would suggest a major growth opportunity for online retailers.[2]

And yet, according to a recent RAND American Life Panel (ALP) survey of more than 2,000 Americans who were selected to represent all demographic groups, almost two-thirds of the respondents have not changed their online shopping habits since the pandemic began.[3] About one-quarter are shopping online more, but 13 percent are actually shopping online less.

What can we learn from these numbers about who is and is not changing their online shopping habits? Of the one-quarter of people doing more online shopping, most of them made small increases in their habits—from shopping online "never or almost never" to "a few times per month," or from "about once a week" to "a few times a week." These changes might add up in terms of overall volume, but almost nobody made significant changes—for example, from never shopping online to now shopping online daily.

People in more-affluent households were more likely to increase their online shopping: More than one-third of households with incomes over $125,000 increased their online shopping, while only 20 percent of households with incomes under $40,000 began shopping more online. Younger people (those under 35) were more likely to increase their online shopping than older people (those over 55), at 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

People working in service jobs that were strongly affected by stay-at-home orders, such as personal care, building maintenance, and food preparation, actually shopped online less often. In these three job categories, 20 percent or more of workers decreased their online shopping. All other job categories were more likely to have increases than decreases in online shopping.

We also learned that about 20 percent of people never or almost never shop online, either before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. About half of this group is made up of people over 55 who live alone. Income matters as well: People with lower incomes (under $40,000) are more likely to avoid online shopping than people with higher incomes.

One-person households were more likely to say that they never shop online compared with households of two or more people. Although one-person households increased the frequency of their online shopping during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were still the least likely to shop online. Households with children were slightly more likely to shop online daily than households without children, but even so, the differences were small (8 percent versus 2.5 percent).

The small portion of Americans (about 3 percent) who were already shopping online daily or almost every day is a varied group. Thirty-two percent of people in this group live in large multifamily buildings with 20 or more units (even though only 12 percent of Americans live in such buildings).[4] They might have smaller housing with less storage space than people who live in single-family houses, and, as a result, might shop more frequently.

As Figure 1 shows, younger people (those under 35) were most likely to shop online before the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost half were shopping online once per week or more already, and that rose to more than 60 percent after the COVID-19 pandemic began. Only 15 percent never shop online. The older people are, the less likely they are to shop online. Their patterns of online shopping also changed less during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 1. Changes in Online Shopping Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic, by Age Group

People younger than 35

Frequency

Before the COVID-19 Pandemic During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Once a week or more 48% 62%
A few times per month 36% 23%
Never or almost never 16% 15%

People aged 35–54

Frequency Before the COVID-19 Pandemic During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Once a week or more 36% 44%
A few times per month 38% 28%
Never or almost never 26% 28%

People 55 and older

Frequency Before the COVID-19 Pandemic During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Once a week or more 27% 34%
A few times per month 37% 34%
Never or almost never 36% 32%

Interestingly, people who live in urban and rural areas have similar online shopping habits. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, they were nearly identical. During the pandemic, people in urban areas increased their online shopping only slightly more than did people in rural areas, meaning that the overall rates are still very similar. Gender also made very little difference in online shopping rates.

Of course, our data have limitations. We asked only about the frequency of online shopping, not about how much people spent or what they were buying. Also, it is possible that people would have preferred to do more online shopping but faced problems in getting delivery slots or signing up for online services because of high demand during the pandemic.[5] We also do not know what kind of stay-at-home restrictions survey respondents were living with when they took the survey (we asked people to compare their online shopping in February and March).

There are two big takeaways from the survey. First, a global pandemic with widespread stay-at-home orders and retail closures would seem to be the most ideal condition to prompt people to shift to online shopping. However, even in those circumstances, the majority of Americans did not change their online shopping habits. Second, the strongest conclusion from our data is that online shopping is highest among younger adults. If they continue to shop online at the rates that they do now, online shopping will continue to grow, slowly but surely, as they age.

Notes

Research conducted by

This report describes a subset of results from a May 2020 survey fielded through the ALP to assess the wide-ranging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on individuals and households. A technical description of the survey, which includes details about the ALP, the objectives of the survey, and information about the fielding of the survey, are presented in Katherine Grace Carman and Shanthi Nataraj, 2020 American Life Panel Survey on Impacts of COVID-19: Technical Documentation, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-A308-1, 2020.

Funding for this research was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations. This research was conducted by RAND Education and Labor, a division of the RAND Corporation that conducts research on early childhood through postsecondary education programs, workforce development, and programs and policies affecting workers, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy and decisionmaking. Questions about this report should be directed to Liisa Ecola at lecola@rand.org, and questions about RAND Education and Labor should be directed to educationandlabor@rand.org.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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