Modern Life

How we shop now: Redefining the retail experience online

E-commerce, subscription services, and AI are moving the shopping experience from in-store to on-screen.

By Stephanie Walden — September 15, 2020

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.”

Pixellated cartoon image of colorful store showroom with car, tires, bikes, and housewares


The pandemic has generated an extraordinary shift in shopping behavior, as consumers turn increasingly to e-commerce to buy everything from groceries to appliances to ergonomic office furniture.

Consumer dollars are landing closer to home

Pandemic spending is, for lack of a better word, unprecedented. Many people have adjusted their financial habits, including what they’re buying — as well as where they’re turning to shop.

According to Deloitte, Q2 consumer spending fell dramatically in areas including recreation, transportation, and accommodation. Spending on flights, hotels, casinos, cruises, sports, movies, and theme parks plummeted. With fewer people buying apparel and luxury accessories, some major retailers like Lord & Taylor shuttered for good.

But a few winners emerged, too: Walmart, Target, and Uber Eats all experienced higher-than-usual volumes of online orders during the first few months of the pandemic. Consumer spending on Amazon jumped 60% between May and July compared with the same time period in 2019. Online grocers, gaming companies, and video streaming services also saw surges. 

“The budgets consumers had allocated to normal things like restaurants, bars, vacation, and hotels — the need or even the ability to spend in those areas effectively evaporated,” says Stephanie Dismore, HP managing director for North America. “Consumers have shifted their personal budget discretionary spend to all things home.”

This has led to sales spikes across home-focused industries. Sales platform Blueport Commerce reported a 306% increase in sales from furniture retailers using their platform during the month of April. The high-end fashion retail site Moda Operandi saw a 97% increase in sales of home design products this summer. Online shoppers are scrambling to equip home offices with technology for remote work. They’re also buying up toys, puzzles, and board games to keep their families occupied. 

Convenience is driving consumer decisions, too, as families grapple with the stress of working from home while simultaneously homeschooling kids. Across the board, subscription-based shopping for consumer goods is up 145%, giving consumers access to the products they need without a trip to the store. 

People are spending more on subscription-based meal kits to ease the burden of cooking at home more often. Curated, try-before-you-buy boxes of clothes and beauty products offer an at-home version of in-store browsing, and automatic re-orders of home essentials replenish frequently used products like razors or coffee automatically. Technology subscriptions are also helping consumers keep up with the demands of working and learning from home. HP’s Instant Ink service, for example, offers subscription plans based on the number of pages you print each month, sending a replacement cartridge to your door before you run out of ink. 

Reinventing what the shopping experience “feels” like

In response to the rapid market changes, retailers are reimagining the browsing and check-out experience. They’re attempting to build and sustain relationships with customers by re-creating what people love about shopping in person, particularly for items they’re used to being able to touch, see, or handle in a store or showroom.

There’s psychology at play here, too, says Nightingale. “New features that showcase more about products and allow customers to understand how bigger purchases will fit into their home or lifestyle help make the customer more certain,” she says.

Some brands are turning to augmented reality (AR) to replicate the in-store experience from the safety of consumers’ couches. Crate & Barrel and home renovation brands like Havwoods have long offered AR or visualization features that enable shoppers to “see” products in their own homes, and these offerings are garnering increased interest from consumers now. Cosmetics companies like Sephora and e.l.f., offer virtual try-on features that use a customer’s laptop or smartphone camera to let them see how makeup will look on their face.

“Stay-at-home and social-distancing policies accelerated consumer demand to shop online by five years overnight.”

Rachel Tipograph, CEO of MikMak

Jon Cheney, CEO and founder of Seek, a web-based AR platform for ecommerce companies, says he’s noted a 600% increase in AR usage through customers’ websites since the start of March. And retailers are seeing results: In a pilot Seek ran with a furniture brand in May and June, customer session length when an AR experience was involved was 26 minutes versus just nine minutes for the control group. The order among AR shoppers was $700 more on average, and conversion increased by 100%.

Customer service goes high tech

In the new era of “mindful consumption,” supporting consumers with superb customer service is even more critical to building trust and loyalty. To meet this demand, some companies are turning to AI-infused chatbots to replicate in-person interactions with store clerks.

“When HP’s US retail partner stores began limiting customer access to mitigate the spread of COVID, hundreds of HP sales support reps were no longer allowed to work in stores,” explains Dismore. 

In response, HP created a virtual customer service option called HP Live Expert, a real-time chat function that allows retail employees to instantly connect to an HP representative. Dismore says the platform has led to more than 25,000 successful customer engagements in just four months. More than 14% of chats end in a sale.

Nfinity Avatars, an ecommerce concierge and coaching platform, takes these interactions a step further with interactive avatars that act as virtual customer service agents and shopping assistants

“The pandemic has accelerated the acceptance of online assistance where a live human isn't the front-line contact,” says Jon Anne Willow, managing director at Nfinity. “We're seeing that people connect and engage more with an AI presence if it has a face.”

Like ordering big-ticket items online or trying out products with AR, getting help from an AI-powered chatbot is a trend that’s likely to stick around long after people have put away their masks and hand sanitizer. These services make the at-home shopping experience not only possible during the pandemic, but also preferable for the long term for some consumers. 

“It takes 21 days to build a habit, and we’re now [months] into COVID-19,” says MikMak’s Tipograph. “The online shopping behaviors that have been adopted aren’t going anywhere.” 


Shopping for new technology at home? Learn how to part with your existing devices safely and responsibly before you buy new ones.