Groceries and Sporting Goods Were Big Gainers in the Covid E-Commerce Boom of 2020

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  • Americans spent $791.7 billion during 2020 on e-commerce, up 32.4% from 2019, according to data published Friday by the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • That behavior translated to e-commerce accounting for 14% of total retail sales, compared to 11% in 2019.
  • Categories with big spikes included groceries, items to help relieve boredom during lockdowns (like sporting goods and musical instruments), and gear for home improvements.

U.S. e-commerce sales in 2020 grew more than 30% from 2019, according to quarterly figures released by the U.S. Department of Commerce on Friday, as the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide lockdowns pushed shoppers to rely on internet retailers for their consumer needs.

Americans spent $791.7 billion online last year, up 32.4% from 2019. Meanwhile, total retail sales in 2020 increased 3.4% from the year prior. That behavior translated to e-commerce claiming a bigger piece of the pie of total retail sales than before. E-commerce ended the year accounting for 14% of all U.S. sales, up from 11% in 2019. 

While consumers shopped online before the pandemic, they were pushed to rely on digital retailers even more during the Covid-19 pandemic, as many physical stores were closed and people opted to stay indoors as much as possible to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

Consumers filled up their virtual shopping carts with products that they might not have otherwise ordered online, particularly groceries, according to a chart published by the U.S. Census Bureau. Online purchases of food and beverage items grew more year-over-year than any other category between the second and fourth quarter of 2020.

People also sought out new hobbies and activities to keep them busy and entertained while stuck at home. A category including sporting goods, musical instruments and books saw a huge boost in the second quarter of 2020, as pandemic lockdowns swept the country.

Other hot online purchases included gear for home improvements — furniture, gardening equipment, building supplies and so on — and personal and health care items.

The shift to digital commerce has benefited a string of major retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Home Depot. Pure e-commerce players like Etsy, Shopify and EBay also got a lift.

It's unclear if the rapid adoption of e-commerce will prove sustainable in the long term. As the Covid-19 vaccine rollout speeds up and more states start to lift coronavirus restrictions, consumers may return to shopping at physical stores. But some of the changes in behavior may stick around after the pandemic, such as curbside pickup and use of online grocery delivery services.

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