As COVID-19 Cases Seesaw, Consumers Remain Uneasy About Returning to Stores — But Digital Sales Are a Bright Spot

The coronavirus outbreak has accelerated digital’s gains — and experts say this growth is only going to continue in the near future.

According to a recent report from The NPD Group, e-commerce will maintain its strength, particularly for fashion purchases, as consumers are still uneasy about in-store shopping due to the COVID-19 health crisis.

The market research firm found last month that Americans planned to make more than half of their buys for the next two weeks online. New research suggested that online purchase activity across apparel and other softline channels held steady at 50% above pre-pandemic levels in the first half of June — even as brick-and-mortar activity improved due to state and local reopenings.

“The pandemic forced an increase in online shopping out of necessity, and the result was a stronger connection with the apparel consumer,” said apparel industry analyst Maria Rugolo. “Consumers have embraced new shopping habits.”

Retail has been among the hardest-hit sectors, with the apparel category recording year-over-year dollar losses close to 45% in the three months ending May, reported NPD. (That month, nearly a third of consumers said they would feel “uncomfortable” shopping in a store when stay-at-home orders were relaxed.) However, e-commerce has served as a bright spot for the category: The firm reported that e-commerce unit sales rose 30% for the same period compared to last year and dollar gains were also up 4%.

As authorities continue to loosen lockdown restrictions, many companies have begun to open their doors across the country. However, both quantitative and qualitative data suggests many consumers are grappling with the “new normal” retail experience: Hand-sanitizing stations, plexiglass barriers and social-distancing markers have been installed in stores to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Some retailers have also turned to appointment-based or contactless services, such as curbside pickup, to provide options to hesitant shoppers.

Plus, a recent surge in new coronavirus cases has led a number of states, including Texas, California and Arizona, to scale back on their reopening plans — leaving some retailers to consider temporarily shuttering their doors once again and, presumably, reinforcing among consumers that moving around in public spaces remains risky amid the pandemic.

“Online shopping is one of many new behaviors and routines developed while under stay-at-home restrictions that are likely to have some staying power, but brick-and-mortar retail can continue to bridge the consumer-confidence gap with things like improved contactless services, sanitizing practices and personal appointments,” added Rugolo. “Consumers have demonstrated their continued willingness to spend on specific apparel items during the pandemic while adapting to new ways of shopping, and while we navigate the road back to some normalcy, apparel retail will need to adapt as well.”

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