When the pandemic hit Portland, Oregon, hard in March, Christopher Hayes and his family canceled the vacation they’d been planning for months — a summer trip soaking up the midnight sun in Alaska. With the money for the trip refunded and a shelter-at-home edict imminent, the family reallocated their vacation budget toward sun-seeking much closer to home. They decided to update their 30-year-old deck and install a full outdoor kitchen.
Instead of heading straight to Home Depot or Lowe’s for this ambitious project, Hayes turned to online sites and social media to see what people were using and research the big-ticket items he planned to purchase — a large outdoor griddle, a smoker, and an industrial garage rack. He bought everything online and assembled many of the items himself.
“I could have gone into a store and bought something prefabricated,” said Hayes. “But this way, I was able to piecemeal exactly what I wanted. And I was willing to do [the extra research] in order to avoid being around a lot of people.”
In the midst of a pandemic that’s left no supply chain unscathed, online shopping has become more than just an occasional indulgence — it’s a lifeline. Today, consumers are turning to e-commerce to buy everything from groceries to appliances to ergonomic office furniture from the safety and comfort of home. The resulting market shifts have been extraordinary, with e-commerce sales growing more than 30% between the first and second quarters of this year.
“Stay-at-home and social-distancing policies accelerated consumer demand to shop online by five years overnight,” says Rachel Tipograph, founder and CEO of MikMak, an enterprise marketing e-commerce platform.
Shifting shopping behavior
People are making major purchases — including big-ticket items like fine jewelry, mattresses, and new cars — via the internet. For those who wish to avoid crowded aisles, “buy online, pick up in store” (BOPIS) has become a common practice. There’s even been a generational mindset shift about online shopping; whereas millennials and Gen Z grew up “adding to cart,” now, 45% of baby boomers say they’re embracing e-commerce because of COVID-19.
Kate Nightingale, a consumer psychologist based in the UK, suggests that these trends are about more than straightforward germophobia — with many people experiencing financial upheaval, there’s a security and power element behind shoppers’ decisions. People are thinking longer and harder about their priorities these days, and many are practicing “mindful consumption.”
“Mindful consumption is about reclaiming control over buying decisions,” she says. “A sense of control is necessary for our experience of safety — something we have all been missing.” Buying online, she adds, means people are able to make their own choices without feeling pressure from a salesperson.
Hayes’ experience seems to support this theory. He says that making such a large purchase online forced him to be more thoughtful — he even felt he had more agency in the process. “Ultimately, I was able to do a lot more tailoring to my vision versus letting a store employee kind of create that vision for me,” he says. “I would also say that it took me longer to buy these items because I put more effort into the research.”