COVID-19’s impact on online shopping and deliveries

This blog post is based on preliminary results from our survey. These results over-represent highly educated and high income individuals, white and Asian respondents, and people who work from home or don’t commute by car. We are currently conducting a survey with a nationally representative sample and will be reporting results here soon. In this series of blog posts, we are highlighting results that are valuable even though they are not collected from a representative sample.

Shopping and dining during the pandemic

One of the most noticeable changes caused by COVID-19 has been in shopping and dining habits. While going to a restaurant or shopping at a mall may have been a commonplace activity before the pandemic, the widespread shutdown of restaurants, bars, and stores has pushed consumers towards online shopping and food delivery services. In our study, we consider three distinct types of online purchases: groceries, non-groceries (such as retail), and restaurant pickup or delivery.

The pandemic has caused all three types of online purchases to become more popular.

Takeout and delivery have increased the most; nearly 70% of respondents ordered from restaurants in the past week, while only 54% of respondents got takeout at least a few times per month before COVID-19 (n=1345). It should be noted here that while takeout is increasing in popularity, total restaurant patronage is decreasing. Pre-pandemic, the fraction of respondents (n=1458) who patronized restaurants regularly in any form was over 90%. During the pandemic, the fraction patronizing restaurants at all in the last week (n=1391) has dipped below 70%. Looking to the future, nearly 40% of former restaurant regulars plan to dine in restaurants less often, and only 60% of these expect to order takeout more often (n=1276). Put simply, restaurant patronage has gone down dramatically during the pandemic, and our data suggest that we should not expect it to rebound fully, especially for dine-in service.

The below figure shows how takeout and delivery orders have changed since the pandemic began, and how it is expected to change in the future. The sizes of the bars represent the percentage of respondents in each category, and the thickness of the lines indicates how many respondents in a particular category in one time period were in a corresponding category in the next time period. The color of the lines corresponds to the answers in the pre-pandemic time period.

Sankey diagram showing how often respondents got takeout from restaurants before the pandemic, how often they do now, and how often they expect to in the future. Before the pandemic, 54% ordered takeout a  few times a month or more. Currently, 69% are doing so in a given week. 21% of respondents expect to order more takeout than they did before the pandemic in the future, while 18% expect to order less.
Takeout and delivery ordering from restaurants before, during, and expected after the pandemic (n=1345)

Online shopping for groceries was somewhat uncommon before the pandemic (only 23% of respondents ever used online grocery shopping services), but has become more prevalent, with nearly a third of respondents purchasing groceries online in the past week (n=1346). In contrast, online shopping for non-groceries was very popular before the virus outbreak, with 70% making purchases multiple times per month (n=1357). During the pandemic, 77% of respondents shopped online for non-groceries in the past week.

The below figures show how online purchases have changed since the pandemic began, and how they are expected to change in the future. The sizes of the bars represent the percentage of respondents in each category, and the thickness of the lines indicates how many respondents in a particular category in one time period were in a corresponding category in the next time period. The color of the lines corresponds to the answers in the pre-pandemic time period.

Sankey diagram showing how often respondents ordered groceries online  before the pandemic, how often they do now, and how often they expect to in the future. Before the pandemic, 23% used this type of service. Currently, 31% are doing so in a given week. 22% of respondents expect to order more groceries online than they did before the pandemic in the future, while 10% expect to order less.
Online grocery purchasing for pickup or delivery, before, during, and expected after the pandemic (n=1346)
Sankey diagram showing how often respondents ordered non-grocery items online before the pandemic, how often they do now, and how often they expect to in the future. Before the pandemic, 70% used this type of service at least a few times per month. Currently, 77% are doing so in a given week. 20% of respondents expect to order more non-groceries online than they did before the pandemic in the future, while 8% expect to order less.
Online shopping for other items before, during, and after the pandemic (n=1357)

Will online shopping’s popularity continue?

Online purchasing will likely maintain some of the popularity it has gained during COVID-19, according to our survey respondents. For all three types of online shopping, most respondents didn’t expect to permanently change their consumption habits after the pandemic had ended. However, roughly 20% of respondents anticipated a long-term increase in each category of purchases. Online grocery and non-grocery shopping may see the biggest change, as the number of respondents expecting to decrease their online shopping behavior is low. On the other hand, ordering takeout and delivery from restaurants may remain more constant. While 21% of respondents expected to order more from restaurants online after the pandemic, a similar percentage (18%) expected a decrease in this behavior (n=1345).

One caveat to these predictions is that our survey results may be overemphasizing those who plan to decrease their online shopping after the threat of the pandemic has passed. Especially in the case of online grocery shopping, many of the respondents who expected a decrease did not shop online before the pandemic (as shown in the figures below). This suggests that they misinterpreted the question as being relative to their behavior during the pandemic. If this is the case, we would expect the number of people predicting decreases in their online purchasing behavior to be inflated.

As we examine the lasting effects that the COVID-19 will have on these industries, it is important to recognize the importance of their “baseline” popularity, or how established they were before the pandemic. For example, respondents clearly anticipate an increase in both grocery and non-grocery shopping online. But since non-grocery shopping was extremely popular while grocery shopping was fairly unpopular before the pandemic, these two industries could still look very different from each other in a post-COVID world. Grocery shopping online could increase substantially and still be the least popular of the three online shopping categories, while online non-grocery shopping is expected to remain by far the most widespread type of online purchase.

Lasting changes in the retail and dining industries could have widespread effects, ranging from decreased driving for shopping trips to fewer jobs available in retail stores as demand rises for software engineers to create and maintain online shopping platforms. Even cultural shifts could occur as restaurants, a staple of many people’s social lives, lose their status as a point of gathering. Like many of the changes brought to light by our survey, the data here likely predicts a future economic shift as businesses adapt their models to new consumption patterns, in this case the spread of online purchases.

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