Skip to content

COVID-19 Impacts on Online and In-Store Shopping Behaviors: Why they Happened and Whether they Will Last Post Pandemic

Download PDF  (2.75 MB)
Publication:  Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board
Publication Date: 2023

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, online and in-store shopping behaviors changed significantly. As the pandemic subsides, key questions are why those changes happened, whether they are expected to stay, and, if so, to what extent. We answered those questions by analyzing a quasi-longitudinal survey dataset of the Puget Sound residents (Washington, U.S.). We deployed structural equation modeling (SEM) to build separate models for food, grocery, and other items shopping to explore the factors affecting such changes. The results revealed that people’s online and in-store shopping frequencies during the pandemic were affected by their perceived health risks, attitudes toward shopping, and pre-pandemic shopping frequencies. Similarly, it was shown that how frequently people expect to shop post pandemic is influenced by their attitudes toward shopping, changes during the pandemic, and their pre-pandemic frequencies. We also classified respondents into five groups, based on their current and expected future shopping behavior changes, and performed a descriptive analysis. The five groups—Increasers, Decreasers, Steady Users, Returnees, and Future Changers—exhibited different trends across online and in-store activities for shopping different goods. The analysis results showed that, while 25% of the respondents increased their online shopping, only 8% to 13% decreased their in-store activities, implying that online shopping did not completely substitute in-store shopping. Moreover, we found that online shopping is a substitution for in-store shopping for groceries, while it complements in-store shopping for food and other items. Additionally, more than 75% of new online shoppers expect to keep purchasing online, while 63%–85% of in-store Decreasers plan to return to their pre-pandemic frequencies.

The rise of e-commerce, busy lifestyles, and the convenience of next- and same-day home deliveries have resulted in exponential growth of online shopping in the U.S., rising from 5% of the total retail in 2011 to 15% in 2020, and it is expected to grow even further in the future. Worldwide, spending on e-commerce passed $4.9 trillion in 2021 and it is projected to surge to $7 trillion by 2025.

In the past few years, there has been ongoing research on how this growth would change people’s travel patterns and whether its effect on in-person activities would be substitution, complementing, or modification. However, there is no single answer to this question, given different product types, regions, demographics, and primary travel modes.

While online purchasing had already been experiencing a growth every year before 2020, the pandemic accelerated this trend. In 2020, online shopping constituted more than 20% of total spending on consumer goods worldwide in comparison to 16.4% in 2019 and 14.4% in 2018. Before COVID-19, it was predicted that total e-commerce sales in the U.S. would grow up to $674.88 billion, yet the actual number turned out to be $799.18 billion. With a 15.9% growth, the U.S. is among the top 10 countries with the highest growth rate in online retail shopping in 2022.

Embracing digital technologies and bringing shops into homes are among the immediate impacts of the pandemic restrictions and lockdowns, with the majority of people reducing their frequency of going to stores and adopting alternative shopping approaches such as curbside pick-up and home delivery. Based on the reports by the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), in Nov–Dec 2020, when the penetration of the coronavirus reached its first peak in the U.S., the percentage of people who decided to shop online instead of going to stores increased by up to 10%. During the early pandemic, about 35% of U.S. workers switched to remote working, and from March to April 2020, the average daily number of people staying home increased by 32 million and the total number of trips decreased by 2.5B. Dining-in restaurants were also banned in half of the U.S. states for several months in 2020, which resulted in a significant drop in the restaurant dine-in demand and shifted people toward online food delivery services, and buying groceries online rather than going to store.

These changes were also influenced by socio-demographic characteristics. For instance, according to the BTS, the percentage of people with an annual income close to $125,000 who replaced their in-store shopping by online shopping in Nov–Dec 2020 was twice those with an annual income of $25,000. People in the neighborhoods with higher number of positive COVID-19 cases or higher spread rate of positive new cases were more likely to change their in-store shopping to online-shopping. Senior people were also shown to have higher tendency to shop online compared with younger generations, perhaps because of health and safety concerns. It is worth noting that these changes were not the same across all products; for example, online sales of food and beverage in the U.S. doubled in 2020, while home furniture online sales only increased by about 50%.

Another factor that is proved to have a major effect on people’s shopping behaviors and travel patterns during the pandemic is their risk perception and fears for their health. Irawan et al. found that perceiving COVID-19 as a severe disease decreased people’s tendency to do in-store grocery shopping. Similarly, Moon et al. found out that, during the pandemic, people who considered themselves less vulnerable to the infection were less likely to use online channels for shopping. Several studies have mentioned that the perceived health risk varies among different groups of population and depends on region, age, gender, education, race, and marital status.

Moreover, people’s online and in-store shopping behaviors are affected by their socio-demographic factors and their attitudes toward the activity. The advantages and disadvantages of online shopping over in-store shopping play a role in attitudes toward the activity. The advantages, such as receiving goods without leaving home, having access to a wider variety of products and information, and being able to compare them easily and efficiently, result in a positive attitude toward online shopping, especially during the pandemic given high perceived health risk, formal penalties, or both. On the other hand, online shopping has some disadvantages, such as transaction security concerns and long delivery times, and in-store shopping offers specific benefits, such as the ability to see, touch, feel, and try the products, ensuring the store’s environment quality, immediate possession of the product, social interaction, and entertainment. Therefore, even during the pandemic, some people maintained frequent in-store shopping trips.

Whether the pandemic-induced changes in online and in-store shopping are permanent is still debatable. Sheth discussed that people may find the new routine more convenient, affordable, and accessible, and therefore stick to it even after the pandemic is over. On the contrary, Dannenberg et al. argued that people’s motives to shop online only hold for the time of crisis, and online retailing will decline when circumstances change. Watanabe and Omori showed that most people used to shop online long before the pandemic, and they merely increased their frequency because of infection risk. So, the reasons behind the surge in online shopping might dissipate as COVID-19 recedes.

In this paper, we study how online and in-store shopping behaviors for different goods were affected during COVID-19, and whether those changes are expected to stay post pandemic. We analyze a quasi-longitudinal survey dataset from the Puget Sound region in Washington State, U.S., that includes data on people’s shopping behavior before and during pandemic, as well as their expected shopping behavior after pandemic. The dataset also contains information on socio-demographic characteristics, as well as psychometric questions about COVID-19 risk perception and attitudes toward shopping. Through descriptive analysis and structural equation modeling (SEM), we explore the factors that directly or indirectly affected people’s three shopping activities (online and in-store), for food, grocery, and other items (clothing, home goods, etc.), and investigate the similarities and differences amongst them.

This study is distinguished in several ways from the previous ones that investigated the impacts of COVID-19 on people’s shopping behavior: (1) it applies a unique descriptive analysis by classifying respondents based on their current and expected future shopping trends and studies how socio-demographic characteristics (directly and indirectly) influence people’s shopping behaviors by analyzing the similarities and differences between those groups; (2) it models online and in-store shopping jointly, considering covariations and dependencies between those two modes; (3) it applies the same methodology and set of variables to three different shopping activities (for food, grocery, and other items) and compares and contrasts their observed/expected trends and influencing factors; and (4) in addition to socio-demographic and attitudinal variables, it considers people’s baseline shopping behaviors (how frequently they shopped online and in-store before the pandemic) as factors affecting their expected post-pandemic shopping behaviors.

Authors: Dr. Andisheh Ranjbari, Jorge Manuel Diaz-Gutierrez (Pennsylvania State University, Helia Mohammadi-Mavi (Pennsylvania State University)
Recommended Citation:
Diaz-Gutierrez, J. M., Mohammadi-Mavi, H., & Ranjbari, A. (2023). COVID-19 Impacts on Online and In-Store Shopping Behaviors: Why they Happened and Whether they Will Last Post Pandemic. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 036119812311551. 

Analysis of Online Shopping and Shopping Travel Behaviors in West Seattle

Download PDF  (1.27 MB)
Publication Date: 2023

The purpose of this research is to explore consumers’ online shopping and in-person shopping travel behaviors and the factors affecting these behaviors within the geographical context of the study area of West Seattle.

West Seattle is a peninsula located southwest of downtown Seattle, Washington State. In March 2020, the West Seattle High Bridge, the main bridge connecting the peninsula to the rest of the city, was closed to traffic due to its increased rate of structural deterioration. The closure resulted in most of the traffic being re-distributed across other bridges, forcing many travelers to re-route their trips in and out of the peninsula. At about the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic caused business-shuttering lockdowns. Both events fundamentally changed the nature of shopping and the urban logistics system of the study area.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) engaged the Urban Freight Lab (UFL) at the University of Washington to conduct research to understand current freight movements and goods demands in West Seattle and identify challenges related to the bridge closure to inform data-driven mitigation strategies. The study took place in two phases: the first phase documented the challenges experienced by local businesses and carriers through a series of interviews and quantified the freight trip generated by land use in the case study area1 ; the second phase, described in the current report, performed an online survey to understand online shopping and in-person shopping travel behaviors for West Seattle residents.

The main objectives of the current study are twofold:

  • Describe online shopping and shopping travel consumer behaviors for West Seattle residents.
  • Understand what factors influence consumer shopping behaviors, from accessibility to local stores, to the characteristics of goods purchased, to socio-economic factors.


To address these objectives, the research team designed an online questionnaire that was advertised through a West Seattle Bridge Closure-related SDOT newsletter and other local online media outlets during the spring and summer of 2022. The questionnaire asked respondents about their socioeconomic conditions (age, income, education, etc.), where they live and their access to transportation (vehicle ownership and types of vehicles), their online shopping behavior, the impact of the West Seattle High Bridge closure on their shopping habits, and about their most recent purchase for a given category of goods among clothing items, groceries, restaurant food, and household supplies. The questionnaire was collected anonymously, and no personally identifiable information was collected. A total of 1,262 responses were collected, and after data processing, the final sample data consisted of 919 responses, corresponding approximately to 1 percent of the study area population.

Comparing the socioeconomic characteristics of the sample with those of the West Seattle study population it should be noted that individuals identifying themselves as white and female and of older age were oversampled, while individuals with lower than a college degree and with annual income less than $50,000 were under-sampled. Therefore, the sample in general is more representative of a more affluent, older population.

Key Findings

The key findings are summarized as follows:

Online shopping is widespread for clothing items and restaurant food.

Respondents receive on average 5 deliveries per week, across all goods categories. 38.7 percent of the respondents reported performing their most recent shopping activity online, considering all goods categories. However, the frequency of online shopping varied across different goods categories. Most of the respondents that purchased groceries or household supplies reported having shopped in person (89 and 75 percent of the respondents respectively), while, in contrast, for those that purchased restaurant food and clothing items, two-thirds of respondents reported buying online in both categories. Online shopping is widespread in the clothing and restaurant food markets, but less in grocery and household supplies markets. Of the consumers that shopped online for restaurant food, 76 percent of them decided to travel to take out (also referred to as curbside pickup), and only 24 percent of them chose to have the meal delivered directly to their home.

Online shopping is more widespread among mobility-impaired individuals

Participants were asked whether they had a disability that limited physical activities such as carrying, walking, lifting, etc. Of the 918 participants, 98 (11%) responded that they did have a disability that fit this description. The share of respondents that shop online was higher among mobility-impaired individuals (30 percent online for delivery and 19 percent online for pick-up) compared to individuals that did not report any mobility impairment (23 percent online for delivery and 12 percent online for pick-up).

Driving is the predominant shopping travel mode

Of the sample of respondents, 96 percent reported having access to a motorized vehicle within their household. Driving is also the most common shopping mode of in-person travel, with 81.3 percent of respondents reporting that they drove to a store to shop. Walking is a distant second preferred shopping travel mode, with 13.1 percent of respondents reporting having walked to a store. Biking and public transit were rarely adopted as a shopping travel mode, together they were observed 5.6 percent of the time. Though included as a travel option, only 1 participant reported using a rideshare vehicle to shop.

Electrification in West Seattle

Of the respondents that have access to a motorized vehicle in their households, 9.8 percent of them reported owning an electric vehicle. Car ownership is much more widespread than bike ownership, with 51.6 percent of the respondents reporting having access to a bike. Among these, 15.5 percent of them said that at least one of their bikes is electric.

The 10-minute city

The average walking time across all types of goods purchased was 10 minutes. The average driving time, for those respondents that reported driving to a store, was also about 10 minutes, except for those who reported purchasing clothing items, which reported on average of 27-minute trip time (both using a private car or using public transit). The longest travel times are seen mostly for respondents that took public transit as a shopping travel mode.

Living in proximity to stores reduces driving and online deliveries

A higher number of stores within a 10-minute walking distance (0.5 miles) is correlated with a higher number of consumers choosing to walk to a store, compared to those that chose to drive to a store or that shopped online. This is true across all goods types, but it is more significantly seen in grocery shopping. Moreover, accessibility to commercial establishments at a walking distance has a stronger impact on reducing the likelihood of driving, and at a lesser magnitude, reduces the propensity of shopping online.

Delivery to the doorstep is the most common destination for online deliveries

For those that chose to buy online, the most common delivery destination was at the respondents’ home doorstep (84 percent of respondents reported receiving online deliveries at home). The second most frequently used delivery destination was parcel lockers (15 percent of respondents), with 12 percent of respondents making use of private lockers, while only 3 percent made use of public lockers. The remaining one percent received deliveries at other destinations (e.g. office or nearby store).

The West Seattle High Bridge closure incentivized local shopping

When asked about the impacts of the West Seattle Bridge closure on individual online and shopping travel behaviors, more respondents reported buying more locally and online, vs. traveling farther for shopping and buying in person.

Recommended Citation:
Goodchild, A., Dalla Chiara, G., Verma, R., Rula, K. (2023) Analysis of Online Shopping and Shopping Travel Behaviors in West Seattle, Urban Freight Lab.