While the pandemic is widely seen as boosting e-commerce sales, it may be more accurate to say that consumers have become more "digitally savvy," according to a new report from Forrester.
Forrester found that more than half of U.S. e-commerce shoppers "enjoy trying new brands," for example. And 63% say they spend time comparing products before they buy.
Still, stores remain the biggest pull for shoppers, and Forrester estimates that 72% of retail sales in the U.S. will take place there into 2024. The top reasons for shopping in store, Forrester found, are to test products (47%) and being able to walk away with an item after purchasing (38%).
Free and available vaccines in the U.S. have tamped down the worst consequences of the pandemic in many areas, but there remains an asterisk next to these improvements, as variants of the virus, including the delta strain, have introduced new levels of uncertainty.
That includes retail and traffic to stores and malls. Still, these days more stores are opening than closing, and the pace of footfall is up. In July, shopping mall traffic exceeded pre-pandemic levels (up 1% compared to July 2019 at indoor malls and up 1.8% at outdoor malls), according to a recent report from Placer.ai.
Those visits have fallen again since then. In August traffic compared to two years ago fell 2.5% at indoor malls and 4.7% at outdoor malls, which Placer attributed to rising COVID cases, the timing of Labor Day and the return to school. The firm blamed the pandemic's surges for further declines in September — 6.5% at indoor malls and 5.2% at outdoor malls — compared to 2019.
While October isn't looking much better, the approaching holidays could send more people back to physical locations, however, especially if COVID cases once again begin to slide, the firm said.
Stores have turned out to be an important source for marketing and customer acquisition, as many pure-play e-commerce companies have found. But according to Forrester, retailers also must ensure that their stores are worth the effort.
"The goal of these stores should be to deliver experiences and support operations that remove customer pains that impact behavior and provide diverse capabilities for catering to different consumer preferences," Forrester said by email.
Consumers have come to expect more fulfillment options when shopping online, with 45% of Forrester's respondents saying they prefer many options. Thirty-eight percent of consumers said they're using BOPIS services more than they used to, while 32% of respondents said they plan to continue using curbside pickup after the pandemic is over, the report found. Nearly a third of consumers who used curbside pickup services did so to save time finding the products in store on their own.
And when it comes to returns, a physical presence may be an asset to retailers, the report found. Forty-one percent of consumers said online returns are difficult and over a third of consumers said this has discouraged them from purchasing online in the first place. Over half of respondents said they prefer in-store returns.