How Online Shopping Has Changed in the First Half of 2020

For Americans across the country, life has changed dramatically in a matter of a few short weeks. The vast majority of us are living under stay at home orders, limiting our outings to only those required to gather the essentials, like groceries, household items, and prescriptions.

Naturally, the pandemic has led to a shift in consumer purchasing behaviors. Many more of us are turning to e-commerce to meet our non-essential needs (books, games, and home workout equipment), and we’re buying things online that we might only have purchased in-store prior to the pandemic (think toilet paper, soap, and household cleaning products).

COVID-19 is causing consumers to adopt new shopping habits

In March the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. quickly developed from a looming concern to an existential threat and consumers began panic buying in earnest. Cleaning products, dry food goods, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper quickly became nearly impossible to find. Now, with stores closed across the country, consumers have turned to Amazon to fulfill their needs. However, even the e-commerce behemoth has struggled to keep up with demand and has been forced to delay delivery of non-essential items in order to prioritize essentials.

We’re now in May and panic buying has mostly subsided as consumers grow more comfortable with the new status quo and in-demand items are replenished both in-store and online.

However, some anecdotal evidence suggests that consumers are turning to “retail therapy” to help bring a little comfort in difficult times. Retailers are tapping into the desire to stay comfortable at home by promoting things like loungewear, bedding, and self-care products. Given the economic instability and historic levels of unemployment though, many consumers will be forced to restrict spending to the bare necessities.

The state of online shopping in March and April

Online orders and sales grew in March and April compared with the same period the previous year, as much as 150%.

As the crisis evolves, consumer behavior evolves alongside it.  For example, sales of things like toilet paper, cleaning supplies, and masks and gloves spiked dramatically in mid-March but have tapered somewhat since then.

Instead, now that most Americans are in their fifth or sixth week of lockdown, they’re looking for ways to spend the time, and that has driven sales of fitness and workout gear, hobby products, and baking supplies. Unable to visit a salon for services, consumers are also taking their personal care into their own hands, buying nail polish, hair removal products, and hair dyes at higher rates.

There’s evidence that fashion and apparel sales are bouncing back after sagging in March. Luxury goods, however, are expected to take a major hit as a result of the pandemic, with some estimates putting 2020 losses at $40 billion.

The question on many retailers’ minds is whether the trend will continue after stay at home orders are lifted. Though it’s impossible to predict exactly what the ripple effects of the pandemic will be, it seems likely that the crisis will have a lasting impact on consumer habits and that many will continue to be fearful of returning to shop in-store in the first few months after reopening.

What retailers can do to optimize their digital storefronts to appeal to consumers

Keeping in mind that lockdowns may extend for months to come and understanding that the reopening of the economy, whenever it should arrive, will not necessarily precipitate a return to normal in terms of in-store traffic, retailers need to adapt to a new reality where e-commerce is more important than ever.

In order to stay afloat while lockdowns continue, retailers need to focus on making the shopping experience both safe and convenient. For example, those with brick-and-mortar locations can reduce packing and shipping bottlenecks by offering curbside pickup. All retailers should also be amending their return policies to beyond the end of lockdowns in order to enable customers to shop with confidence. Actively promoting what your business is doing to ensure safety both to your employees and your customers is also key to winning their trust during an unstable time.

Beyond those basics, brands should look to invest in technology that powers engaging e-commerce experiences in the long term. Specific focus should be directed to technology that can help replicate the in-store experience if that’s important to your customers. For example, AR and VR allows customers to experience products virtually before purchasing. With consumers at home or those simply too nervous to venture back into stores once lockdowns are lifted will likely be more willing to try out these new technologies than they have been previously. COVID-19 is accelerating the adoption of technology unlike anytime before. 


The COVID-19 pandemic has forced consumers to shelter at home and this has had a profound effect on shopping behaviors. Brands across the board need to be thinking about how to fortify their e-commerce presence to meet demand in this new reality and plan strategic tech rollouts to make digital experiences as immersive and engaging as offline ones.

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