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COVID-19

Consumers are buying less while shopping online more

Mitchell Hartman May 14, 2020
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Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Consumers are buying less while shopping online more

Mitchell Hartman May 14, 2020
Heard on:
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Americans are spending less right now — retail sales were down more than 8% in March, and economists expect a steeper decline in April.

Meanwhile, more of what consumers are buying comes at the click of a mouse or the touch of a smartphone screen.

The Marketplace-Edison Research Poll found that 4 in 10 consumers who were already shopping online for groceries or other goods before the pandemic are now doing it more.

“We do a lot of Amazon and online shopping anyway, and I would definitely say it has increased for sure,” said David Blevins. He lives in Clarksville, Tennessee, with his wife and three kids. He owns a Chick-fil-A franchise that’s been open, and busier than ever, since the pandemic hit.

Blevins said shopping in person right now “is a hassle — either they’re not open or stores have limited hours.” Shopping on the internet, he said, “you don’t have to get out of the house. My wife’s trying to stay in the house with the kids as much as possible. It’s driving her crazy, actually.”

The rise in online shopping is likely to persist post-pandemic, said retail analyst Camilla Yanushevsky at CFRA Research.

“The survey data says that even when the stay-at-home orders are lifted, people still want to avoid public places.”

Yanushevsky points out that with online shopping, it’s easy to compare prices and save.

“It allows the consumer to be more frugal,” she said. “Grocery stores and other retailers spend a lot of marketing and analytics to spur impulse purchases, especially around the checkout counter.”

Frugality is a high priority right now, said Robert Farrokhnia at Columbia Business School. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, “Income, Liquidity and the Consumption Response to the 2020 Economic Stimulus Payments,” he and colleagues examined how families at different income levels are spending their $1,200-$2,400 federal pandemic stimulus checks.

For those at low- and middle-income levels who have little savings in the bank to provide an emergency financial cushion, Farrokhnia said, households are spending primarily on “nondurable goods: food, pharmacies, supermarkets and so on. And there are very few expenditures on durable goods — washing machines, cars, appliances or electronics.”

According to the Marketplace-Edison Research Poll, those making less than $25,000 a year are the least likely to have shopped online before the pandemic and to have shifted to online shopping now.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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