Coronavirus pandemic turbocharges online sales, which were up more than 31% in just three months

A man stacks packages for delivery during the coronavirus pandemic on April 12, 2020 in New York City. COVID-19 has spread to most countries around the world, claiming over 110,000 lives with infections at over 1.8 million people.

Cindy Ord | Getty Images

U.S. e-commerce sales grew more than 30% between the first and second quarter of 2020, according to quarterly figures released by the U.S. Department of Commerce on Tuesday, illustrating that the pandemic has pushed more spending online.

Consumers spent $211.5 billion online during the second quarter, up 31.8% from the previous quarter. That’s a significant step up from the first quarter, which saw U.S. e-commerce sales of $160.3 billion, an increase of 2.4% from the fourth quarter of 2019. E-commerce now accounts for 16.1% of all U.S. sales, up from 11.8% in the first quarter.

The data provides the latest picture of how the coronavirus pandemic has turbocharged a shift to e-commerce for many Americans.

In March and April, facing shuttered brick-and-mortar stores, many consumers turned to online retailers for essential goods like paper towels and hand sanitizer, which also led to an uptick in purchases for things like office supplies and electronics. Online grocery orders also surged as many consumers opted to skip trips to the supermarket. 

The July Census data shows that online shopping has continued to grow among consumers even as many businesses have reopened their doors. Total retail sales continued to decline in the second quarter, shrinking 3.9% from the first quarter of 2020, when total retail sales decelerated 1.3% from the fourth quarter of 2019, according to data from the Census Bureau.

Unsurprisingly, major retailers like Amazon, Walmart and Target have benefited from the rapid shift to e-commerce during the pandemic. Both Amazon and Walmart reported massive bumps in e-commerce sales in the last quarter, while Target, which reports second-quarter earnings on Wednesday, saw a spike in digital sales in the first quarter.

As more states lift start to lift coronavirus restrictions, such as New York, consumers may return to shopping at physical stores. But a significant portion of online shopping may be here to stay. Kantar, a consulting company, recently reported that 40% of consumers now say they have “increased or significantly increased” their online shopping amid the pandemic.

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