On any given day this past year, I've had at least three or four tabs open on my phone to various shopping sites. Right now, there's one for stalking yet another sweatsuit (a uniform I'll be wearing well into 2021 by the looks of it), one for the local plant store (the most effective form of retail therapy I've found yet), and a few others for comparing shelving systems (turns out all those plants need somewhere to live).
While these might once have been the kind of purchases I'd make in person, the pandemic has made IRL browsing tricky, if not impossible — so, like millions of other consumers, I've adjusted my shopping habits accordingly. Groceries, prescriptions, fitness equipment, cleaning supplies, masks, toilet paper, video games, and home-office furniture — Americans have ordered it all from the comfort and safety of their living rooms, spending an estimated $794.5 billion overall in 2020, according to eMarketer. In fact, in the U.S. alone, e-commerce sales were up 36.7% in the third quarter of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019, according to the latest Department of Commerce data.
Although this shift to online-everything may be a matter of slowing the spread, experts say many of the shopping practices we've gotten used to in the last year are likely here to stay for 2021 and beyond — in part because the e-commerce experience has never been faster, more flexible, or more personalized.
"It's forced retailers to up their game," says Reid Greenberg, executive vice president of global digital and e-commerce at Kantar, a market research company. Consumers today expect options, he says — from how they receive their goods to how fast they arrive to how they pay for them. If we'd rather pick up an order curbside than wait for it to be shipped, most major store-based retailers now offer that choice to us at checkout. If we want to pay for our purchase in monthly installments instead of putting it all on a credit card, "buy now, pay later" plans like Affirm make that possible at thousands of merchants.
"More and more consumers are looking at, 'Who accepts my choice of preferred payment?' before they actually make a purchase decision,” says Nicole Leinbach Reyhle, founder of Retail Minded, a publication and research firm. Once considered a fine-print detail, this stage in the checkout process is emerging as a deciding factor in where consumers will and won't spend their money — especially given that, for the average American, sticking to a financial plan is more crucial than ever. With a flexible pay-over-time solution that doesn't charge hidden or late fees like some credit cards do, "consumers know exactly how much they'll pay and when they'll be done making payments, enabling them to better achieve their budgeting goals on their own timeline," says Silvija Martincevic, chief commercial officer at Affirm.
When most stores across the U.S. temporarily shuttered this past spring, retailers also had to find creative ways to bring elements of the brick-and-mortar experience online. One-on-one Zoom appointments with store associates filled the void once occupied by fitting-room chats; luxury boutiques and department stores rolled out white-glove delivery complete with tailoring services; beauty brands added augmented reality so customers could "try on" lipstick and foundation shades from their smartphones. By necessity, digital became the first priority, and online shoppers are now reaping the rewards.
Even brands and retailers who resisted e-commerce before last year have come online by the thousands, meaning you may finally be able to support your favorite hometown vintage shop or local bookstore even if you can’t physically make it there. Doing so is especially important now, when millions of small- and medium-sized businesses are at risk of closing due to the financial pressures of the pandemic. Shop online today, and you’re more likely to have somewhere to shop in-person later. Still, without rent forgiveness or easily accessible loans for many small businesses, the lower operational costs of digital selling may be what ends the first-name-basis service we enjoyed in the first place.
"People still want the physical experience," says Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. "They still long for what they had before COVID, so some of that desire is not going away, and the personalization from having a relationship with a local retailer [is something they] still value."
Just as 2020 has changed the bond between retailers and their customers, it's also redirected consumers' spending goals: According to a survey of 2,000 U.S. shoppers conducted by Affirm, 43% of respondents said they learned to be more intentional about their purchases in 2020. While some of us might have fallen victim to an impulse purchase or two because of a particularly well-targeted ad (looking at you, Millennial-bait cookware), with so much information available about virtually any product under the sun, we're also able to compare prices, pore over dozens of reviews, and research a brand's values before proceeding to checkout.
Another result of the pandemic? An influx of older shoppers to e-commerce. Consumers age 65 and up were the fastest-growing demographic of online shoppers from January to October 2020, according to market research firm the NPD Group, as reported by the Washington Post. The arrival of this cohort is already benefiting shoppers of all ages, as retailers have scrambled to enhance their customer-service offerings, simplify search and checkout processes, and add more videos and images to product-detail pages.
"It's forced companies to really rethink, What does customer service mean?" says Greenberg, citing the investments some brands have made in live customer support and video-chat services to earn valuable Baby Boomer loyalty. These retailers, he says, have realized, "we just can't have a platform up and running without having best-in-class customer service…Instant gratification and help are key for capturing that consumer both immediately and long-term."
Ultimately, just as this year has given many of us a chance to slow down and take a hard look at our values and priorities, it has also been an opportunity to assess our expectations of retailers.
"What happened with COVID is consumers had to hit pause on their historic shopping patterns," says Leinbach Reyhle. "For many, they had to totally reevaluate how they engage with brands and retailers. It gave them an opportunity to reflect on not only how they've made purchases in the past, but how they can now make purchases in the present. [So], looking ahead, what will the future of shopping look like?" The short answer, if this pattern of reflection and innovation continues: nimbler, more bespoke — and better than ever before.