By Annie Kim

Updated: September 21, 2021

The Future of Retail in 2021

In-person shopping is making a slow rebound, but has a long way to go even after vaccine rollouts

The American retail sector roared back in 2021 after lackluster sales during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since March, retail sales in the U.S. have increased by double digits over their 2020 figures, and sales are expected to total more than four trillion dollars by the end of 2021. At the same time, the pandemic has accelerated the shift to online shopping. One analysis found that ecommerce sales have reached a level not expected until 2027.

We wanted to understand how the pandemic has changed how Americans shop and explore their current shopping habits as we head into the fall/winter shopping season. Our research looks at the shopping habits of 1,000 U.S. adults, pre-pandemic and today.

Key Findings

  • Forty-five percent of people said they regularly shopped in stores before the pandemic, but that figure is just 23 percent even after vaccine rollout.
  • Nearly two in three people prefer shopping in smaller local stores because of the pandemic.
  • More than 30 percent expect online shopping to be their main way of buying both essential and non-essential items in the future.

Online Shopping Remains Steady, Brick-and-Mortar Making Slow Rebound

Long before the pandemic, a massive global shift was underway. Online shopping, or ecommerce, has grown steadily over the past two decades. In 2000, online sales made up less than one percent of all retail in the U.S.; today, that figure is closer to one-quarter.

Our survey indicated that one-third of Americans shopped online for nonessential items before the pandemic, while in-person shopping was more popular — 45 percent of people shopped this way. Online shopping remained steady over the past 18 months, while in-person shopping plummeted. In-store shopping is inching back up, though only 23 percent of people said they were regularly shopping in a store for nonessential items like clothing, toys, and housewares. That’s just over half who said they bought these items in-store before COVID-19.

Frequent shopping for nonessential items at various points over past 18 months*

Method Pre-pandemic Pre-vaccine rollout Post-vaccine rollout
Online 32% 33% 29%
In-person 45% 18% 23%

* Includes respondents who said they used this shopping method at least twice a week

About nine percent of people said they shopped in a brick-and-mortar store for nonessential items on a daily basis before the pandemic; today, that figure is less than half (four percent).

Interestingly, online shopping for nonessentials is slightly lower today than it was before COVID-19. Though the decline is small, disruptions in the supply chain could be to blame for people putting off nonessential online purchases. Analysts say shoppers should expect delays and high prices to continue through at least next year, in part because of slow vaccine rollouts in many developing nations that power factories, shipping suppliers, and other crucial supply chain labor.

Local Businesses Have Reason to be Optimistic

The pandemic caused hundreds of businesses to close temporarily, but about one-third of small businesses have closed for good. However, our research indicates that small, local businesses have a reason to be optimistic.

A majority of people we talked to said they’d rather shop in local businesses than big-box stores because of the pandemic, and an even higher percentage said they’d spend more money in small businesses if there were more options near them.

Almost 60 percent of people said that they’re shopping more in local businesses because of the pandemic, though age was a factor. Sixty-two percent of those between 18 and 29 prefer local businesses compared to just 53 percent for those 61 or older.

However, older adults may be less likely to live in areas where local business is strong since almost 3 in 4 said if more shops opened near them, they’d be more likely to shop local.

Percentage who would shop local if they had more options by age group

18-29 30-44 45-60 61+
64% 66% 74% 73%

Online Shopping Will Continue Growing

Ecommerce has already eclipsed industry projections, and Adobe expects 2022 to be the first year for global online shopping to break the one trillion dollar mark. Our findings mirror that projection, as few people told us that in-person shopping would be the primary way they buy things.

Americans were more than twice as likely to say they’d shop primarily online than primarily in-person.

Despite Rising Virus Cases, Majority Say They Feel Safe Shopping In-Person

COVID-19 cases and deaths have been surging throughout the late summer, and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommend that everyone wear a mask in public places regardless of their vaccine status. Many cities and states have followed CDC recommendations, requiring people to mask up in public.Even so, a majority of the people in our study (68 percent) said they feel safe shopping in-person.

Understanding Americans’ Shopping Habits

Where do Americans prefer to shop, how much do they spend, and what factors motivate them most in making purchasing decisions?

Minor differences between online, in-person spending

Seventy-two percent of people spend no more than $100 per month shopping in stores for nonessential items, while that rate was slightly lower (63 percent) for online shopping. And low-cost purchases, meaning those under $50, are more likely to be done in a store than on a website, perhaps due to the cost of shipping online purchases.

Average monthly spending, in-person vs. online

Range In-person Online
$0-$50 33% 27%
$51-$100 39% 40%
$101-$200 23% 24%
$201+ 6% 8%

One in four say Walmart or Target is their favorite store

By identical rates (14 percent), people named Walmart and Target as their favorite stores for in-person shopping trips, followed by Home Depot (10 percent). Those over 60 were most likely to say Walmart was their preferred store (21 percent).

Preferred store for in-person shopping, top 10

Target 14%
Walmart 14%
Home Depot 10%
Marshalls 9%
Best Buy 6%
Macy’s 6%
Gap 5%
Ross 5%
JCPenney 4%
Ulta 3%

Amazon is the online retailer that shoppers would most like to visit in-person if they could

Six in 10 Americans chose Amazon – a company that saw profit rise by more than 200 percent due to increased online shopping during the pandemic – as the online retailer they’d visit in real life if they could. eBay was in second place (eight percent), but no other online store broke double digits.

Online store shoppers would visit in-person if they could, top 5

Amazon 61%
eBay 8%
Wayfair 6%
Newegg 4%
ASOS 3%

Deals, convenience, and quality most motivating factors when shopping

Almost 40 percent of people said getting a great deal was one of the three most important factors for them when deciding whether to buy an item. Speed and convenience and reviews from other consumers are also prized.

Most important factors when buying a product*

Finding a great deal 39%
Speed and convenience 36%
Reviews from other customers 35%
Buying something from the comfort of my own home 33%
In-person customer service 27%
Seeing, touching, and trying out the item in-person 25%
Financing options 24%
Browsing and window shopping 21%
The physical day-out experience 18%
Ease of finding the product 12%

* Consumers were asked to choose the 3 most important factors to them

Conclusion

No aspect of daily life has escaped the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but the capacity for everyday Americans to continue powering the nation’s economy by spending money does not seem to have been curtailed much. In-person shopping may continue to lag, based on our findings, but the long-term outlook should be bright.

Methodology

We surveyed 992 U.S. adults about their shopping habits before the pandemic, before the vaccine rollout, and today. We asked them questions related to how they shop (online vs. in-person), what they typically purchase, how much they spend, what their favorite stores are, and more. Our survey was conducted online in 2021, and the survey sample was balanced with U.S. Census data on age and gender.

Data Appendix

Additional data tables used in this report:

Online shopping frequency for nonessential items, past 18 months

    Frequency
    Pre-pandemic
    Pre-vaccine rollout
    Post-vaccine rollout
Less than once a month 4% 8% 6%
Once a month 12% 14% 19%
2-3x per month 18% 22% 20%
Once a week 33% 23% 26%
2-3x per week 26% 23% 20%
Daily 6% 10% 9%

In-person shopping frequency for nonessential items, past 18 months

    Frequency
    Pre-pandemic
    Pre-vaccine rollout
    Post-vaccine rollout
Less than once a month 4% 18% 12%
Once a month 8% 15% 19%
2-3x per month 18% 21% 22%
Once a week 25% 28% 23%
2-3x per week 36% 14% 19%
Daily 9% 4% 4%

In the future, how important for you is shopping in-store/in-person vs. shopping online exclusively?

    Answer
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Shopping in-store is very important and would be my main way of shopping 15% 13% 16% 17% 13% 17% 13%
Shopping in-store is important but I would also use online shopping sometimes 28% 28% 29% 25% 25% 24% 37%
I would shop half the time in-store and the other half online 26% 24% 28% 26% 29% 26% 24%
Shopping in-store isn’t very important because I often use online shopping 21% 22% 21% 20% 24% 25% 17%
Shopping in-store isn’t important at all because all my shopping is online 10% 13% 6% 12% 10% 8% 10%

Due to COVID-19, I shop more in local business than big stores

    Answer
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Strongly agree 21% 21% 22% 23% 21% 21% 10%
Agree 37% 38% 34% 39% 36% 34% 43%
Neither agree nor disagree 26% 26% 27% 27% 26% 26% 20%
Disagree 12% 12% 13% 9% 13% 16% 23%
Strongly disagree 4% 3% 4% 3% 4% 3% 3%

I would shop at my local stores more if there were local businesses I could support

    Answer
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Strongly agree 24% 26% 22% 24% 24% 26% 20%
Agree 43% 42% 44% 40% 42% 48% 53%
Neither agree nor disagree 25% 24% 26% 28% 25% 19% 17%
Disagree 7% 7% 6% 6% 7% 8% 10%
Strongly disagree 1% 1% 2% 1% 1% 1% 0%

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I feel safe returning to in-store/in-person shopping

    Answer
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Strongly agree 24% 27% 19% 22% 25% 26% 17%
Agree 44% 42% 47% 43% 44% 42% 52%
Neither agree nor disagree 22% 21% 23% 28% 19% 20% 14%
Disagree 10% 9% 11% 7% 11% 10% 17%
Strongly disagree 1% 1% 1% 1% 1% 1% 0%

On average, how much do you spend per month on nonessential items in-person and online?

    Range
    In-person
    Online
$0-10 4% 2%
$11-20 6% 4%
$21-30 6% 7%
$31-40 7% 6%
$41-50 10% 8%
$51-60 9% 10%
$61-70 9% 8%
$71-80 6% 8%
$81-90 6% 5%
$91-100 9% 9%
$101-125 11% 13%
$126-150 4% 4%
$151-175 4% 4%
$176-200 4% 3%
$200+ 6% 8%

Which of the following is your favorite store to shop at in-person?

    Store
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Target 14% 15% 15% 13% 16% 14% 15%
Walmart 14% 18% 20% 13% 20% 17% 21%
Home Depot 10% 8% 7% 10% 5% 5% 14%
Marshalls 9% 6% 5% 9% 5% 4% 7%
Best Buy 6% 7% 8% 9% 7% 7% 7%
Macy's 6% 5% 5% 6% 6% 8% 0%
Gap 5% 3% 2% 3% 4% 2% 0%
Ross 5% 3% 2% 3% 4% 5% 0%
JCPenney 4% 4% 4% 4% 3% 2% 7%
Ulta 3% 2% 2% 4% 4% 1% 0%
Dick's Sporting Goods 3% 3% 4% 3% 2% 3% 7%
Old Navy 3% 4% 5% 3% 5% 6% 0%
Bed Bath & Beyond 3% 2% 1% 2% 3% 2% 0%
Kohl's 3% 3% 3% 1% 3% 5% 1%
Lowe's 3% 2% 2% 3% 3% 3% 0%
Belk 2% 2% 2% 4% 1% 2% 0%
Nordstrom 2% 3% 4% 3% 1% 2% 7%
Neiman Marcus 2% 2% 2% 2% 2% 4% 0%
Sephora 2% 3% 3% 3% 2% 1% 7%
Staples 2% 3% 4% 3% 2% 2% 7%
Other 2% 1% 0% 1% 0% 3% 0%

Which online store would you most like to visit in real life?

    Store
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Amazon 61% 65% 56% 58% 60% 52% 70%
eBay 8% 8% 9% 6% 7% 10% 10%
Wayfair 6% 3% 9% 5% 6% 6% 7%
Newegg 4% 4% 5% 4% 4% 6% 3%
ASOS 3% 4% 2% 3% 4% 2% 3%
Carhartt 3% 4% 2% 5% 2% 5% 0%
QVC 3% 2% 5% 4% 3% 2% 3%
Shein 3% 3% 3% 5% 5% 3% 0%
ToysRUs 3% 3% 2% 3% 3% 5% 0%
Overstock 2% 3% 2% 4% 4% 3% 0%
Zappos 2% 1% 3% 2% 1% 6% 0%
Missguided 2% 2% 3% 2% 2% 1% 3%

What are the most important factors to you when buying an item or product? (Up to three)

    Factor
    All
    Male
    Female
    18-29
    30-44
    45-60
    61+
Finding a great deal 39% 36% 42% 33% 40% 42% 40%
Speed and convenience 36% 35% 37% 34% 37% 28% 43%
Reviews from other customers 35% 33% 37% 32% 38% 36% 33%
Buying something from the comfort of my own home 33% 36% 30% 31% 30% 34% 36%
In-person customer service 27% 24% 31% 29% 24% 22% 34%
Seeing, touching, and trying out the item in-person 25% 25% 25% 27% 19% 27% 27%
Financing options 24% 22% 27% 25% 27% 30% 17%
Browsing and window shopping 21% 22% 21% 28% 25% 26% 10%
The physical day-out experience 18% 20% 16% 24% 21% 17% 10%
Ease of finding the product 12% 10% 14% 6% 12% 15% 13%