Click to Checkout: Online Shopping During a Pandemic

We are shopping with increased frequency online. Let us be conscientious consumers and shop ethically.


Illustration by Karen Phua

Throwaway culture and online retail giants are on the rise. While online shopping is a safe option for many consumers, how we shop now can have a big impact on the future of e-commerce.

Fifth Avenue has never been so quiet. The once bustling department stores and spectacular window displays are now stained by a grim cloud of gloom as a mark of the Coronavirus pandemic that plagues the world. New York City has transformed from one of the most crowded and vibrant places on Earth into an eerie world of silent streets and closed shops. As stores are shut down and millions of Americans shelter at home, we rapidly prepare to enter a future dominated by e-commerce. We have access to virtually anything one can imagine by shopping online, and the pandemic has cultivated unprecedented growth for various online services. Beyond these current shifts, however, consumer habits are changing in ways that may endure past quarantines. 

For many families, online clothing, grocery, and entertainment shopping will replace in-person store and mall visits until a COVID-19 vaccine is available to the public. A survey of 1,200 consumers in March 2020, by Retail Systems Research revealed that 90% of shoppers were hesitant to shop in stores and 45% expected online shopping would be a necessity for them during the crisis. U.S. online sales increased 49% in April over the prior year. With the convenience of this form of shopping and the remarkable variety of items available, consumers are opening up to the great possibilities of e-commerce. As long as a viable threat remains, many people will continue to rely on online services for essential items. 

Several surveys delineate more than a third of all Americans have ordered groceries online for the first time since quarantine began. We are experiencing such a large movement towards e-commerce, and our online shopping habits are evolving. Evidently, how we shop now will have an immense impact upon the availability of products and will shape how companies handle e-commerce in the future. 

Shipment Delays and Shortages

While the restrictions brought upon by the pandemic have forced millions of people to turn to online shopping, every order that we place comes at a price — a price greater than the money we spend on shopping itself. The bright screen and user interface that we see can be one-sided and can blind us from the effects of our shopping habits on others. There are delays created on all fronts of the shipping process when so many people are placing orders at once. The most prominent shift is caused by delays due to essential needs. Many online shipping companies, such as Amazon, are focusing on “items customers need most,” and prioritizing items that people need to survive. With the massive volume of orders recently, it does not help that many packaging facilities are short staffed. To minimize the exposure of workers to each other, stores are experiencing limited staff needed to package items. Moreover, there are issues at warehouses pertaining to stock shortages due to the sheer volume of people ordering in large quantities. 

It is frustrating when shipments are delayed. Perhaps the shipment tracker on your account says your item is not out for delivery when you ordered it yesterday. Maybe the Same-Day Delivery order you placed in the morning came the next day. Regardless of the dilemma, we must understand that warehouse workers and delivery people are working tirelessly to get packages to our doorsteps. “It is really important that we are sympathetic to everyone. Although the warehouse employees may not always be considered ‘frontline’ workers, they are still putting themselves and their families at risk so that consumers can still have semblance of normalcy in their lives,” said Ramisa Promi ’21

As consumers, there is little control over the shipment process. With these unprecedented consumption patterns, it is hard to simply go to your local store and pick up what you need. However, there are simple fixes that we can implement on our end to try to alleviate the stress for warehouse workers and shipping companies. Consumers can even potentially ease shipment delays through understanding the delivery process. 

Problems arise when we opt for speed. Two-Day shipping certainly sounds a lot better than five days. Especially if it is free, we usually go for the faster option. Everyone is purchasing more online and wanting these goods delivered quickly, creating more vehicles, traffic, and even more emissions. While getting your package in a speedy two days sounds like a triumph, expedited shipping goes in the wrong direction by putting more vehicles on the road. Opting for slower shipping times on non-essential items can make a big difference in the long-run. Consumers can also try to consolidate orders and buy everything that they need in one big order, instead of placing smaller separate orders over a span of time. On the other side, companies can be doing a lot more by providing incentives and enforcing the idea that sometimes slower is the better option. 

Throwaway Culture and Retail Therapy

More evident to the everyday consumer, as people continue to purchase commodities online, heaps of packages pile up and backlogs of cardboard boxes sit everywhere. At the onset of the pandemic, many concerned themselves with scoring the best discounts or buying in bulk, but our deep reliance on online shopping during these times elucidates to the shifts in our online shopping behaviors. The world of e-commerce is experiencing jumps in impulse shopping and generating massive amounts of waste. Americans increased impulse buying by 18% during the pandemic. While shipping methods are somewhat out of the consumer’s control, after one receives their order, they may neglect the environmental effects of what happens with the packaging afterwards. 

Aside from buying groceries and other essential items, many socially distant Americans find comfort in retail therapy. Whether it is through entertainment, clothing, or expensive electronics, purchasing non-essential items are a form of stress relief for many. The coronavirus anxiety also risks the return of throwaway culture, resulting in the human exploitation of natural resources in order to produce products for people to purchase and eventually “throw away.” The byproducts of our waste harm the environment and are creating mountains of plastic litter and cardboard boxes, waiting to decompose. 

When online shopping, buying in bulk can be tempting, but you must understand when the tower of extra packages that you have stocked up becomes non-essential. Re-evaluate whether your purchases are indispensable during the pandemic or if you can go without them for a while. The stacks of cardboard boxes are a ubiquitous part of online shopping, and most can be placed in curbside recycling. Amazon has frustration-free packaging (FFP) and there are also many organizations such as Give Back Box that can help contribute to a more sustainable solution. 

Online Retail Companies

It seems as businesses set up for success during the pandemic have already or are currently shifting towards providing online services. The cracks in traditional brick-and-mortar retail are only widening with the Coronavirus pandemic and strengthening the monopoly of online retail giants, such as Amazon. While companies like Walmart are hiring thousands of workers amid the crisis, the massive influx of orders may come at the cost of employee protections

Online retail giants hold more power over the safety of their workers than we know. At Amazon, whereas many white-collar employees have been sent home, warehouse workers had to brave outbreaks in dozens of facilities. Risking their lives to provide deliveries, employees cannot simply take paid sick-leaves. “It is important to them that they still have a source of income, especially at a time like this when our economy is hitting an all time low,” said Promi.

Some companies require that workers have a quarantine order or test positive for COVID-19 in order to receive a quarantine paycheck. Even with the fear of returning to work given the potential of risking their immune systems, many workers cannot afford to sustain themselves without pay. Research shows the coronavirus can live up to three days on plastic and 24 hours on cardboard. Contact drivers for deliveries are concerned that their packages have gone through so many hands before receiving them.

By understanding the ramifications of online shopping for non-essential products and the risks that warehouse and delivery employees face, hopefully we can evaluate the effects of how we shop online. “We are all learning to adapt during this time, and there are fewer people working. The best thing that we can do is to try to understand that,” said Promi. Many companies are offering critical delivery services during the pandemic. One should not lose sight of the potential power of large corporations that we rely on and those that survive the coronavirus fallout. 

 With just the click of a button, it seems so simple and safe to have items delivered directly to one’s doorstep. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 is transforming the world of e-commerce, and stay-at-home orders are only increasing in these times of uncertainty. Nonetheless, behind each checkout lies a greater impact on various industries, its employees, and the environment. Not everyone can afford to choose where their money goes, but try to have patience with shipping companies and do business with companies that are treating their employees well. Let us be conscientious about our purchases and direct online shopping to support a world that we want — one click at a time. 

Let us be conscientious about our purchases and direct online shopping to support a world that we want — one click at a time.