Tuesday, March 2, 2021
March 2, 2021

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Seattle tops nation for COVID-19-era increase in online spending

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We don’t know yet all the ways that the coronavirus pandemic will change the world. But one that seems certain is that more of our lives will be lived online.

Many speculate that telecommuting will be a permanent change, and downtown office towers will forever be half-empty. And our urban downtowns face another potential threat: the end of brick-and-mortar retail.

Online shopping has exploded amid lockdowns, and profits have soared for online retailers — including Amazon, naturally.

And while across the U.S., consumers have increased their online shopping habits since the pandemic, nowhere is this trend more pronounced than in Seattle.

According to new survey data collected in mid-December, more than 2 million people who live in the Seattle metro area — 67% of the adult population — said that they have increased the amount of shopping they do online, based on their last seven days of purchases. That is more than 10 percentage points above the national average (55%), and ranks No. 1 among the 15 largest U.S. metro areas.

The data comes from the Household Pulse Survey, a new endeavor by the U.S. Census Bureau, working in conjunction with five other federal agencies. Unlike other census products, which have a long lag time, the Household Pulse Survey provides near real-time data.

These statistics are intended to help inform officials and policymakers about the impacts of the pandemic on communities across the country, and to provide data to aid in the post-pandemic recovery.

The Household Pulse Survey is a national survey, but also breaks out data for the 15 largest metro areas (and Seattle just makes the cut at No. 15). The Seattle metro area is defined as King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

In every metro area surveyed, the increase in online shopping because of the pandemic was dramatic. Even in the lowest metro — Houston — 48% of residents say their online shopping has increased.

The metros at the top of the list for the increase in online spending are all areas where the population is highly educated and salaries are well above the national median. After Seattle, the top metro areas are Boston (64%), Washington, D.C. (64%), and San Francisco (62%). This could also be a reflection of stricter lockdown measures in these places when compared with, say, Houston.

Changes to online shopping behavior was only one of the questions included in the survey. It also asked folks about a variety of different ways that their spending and shopping behaviors have changed because of the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, spending at restaurants has plummeted due to the pandemic. Nationally, 59% said that avoiding restaurants was one way their spending habits had changed.

Folks in the local restaurant industry will cringe to hear that, again, Seattle was more than 10 percentage points higher than the national average, at 68%. And — again — we topped the list of 15 metros for keeping away from restaurants, just slightly ahead of San Francisco.

The other major changes to spending behaviors in the Seattle area are an increase in the use of credit cards or smartphone apps for purchases (42%), canceled or postponed in-person medical or dental appointments (33%), and more curbside-pickup purchases (29%).

The Household Pulse survey also asked respondents about the reasons behind their changes in spending and shopping behaviors. By far, the top answer across the nation was an understandable fear of being exposed to the coronavirus.

Nationally, 54% of U.S. adults say they have changed their spending and shopping behaviors because they’re concerned about going to public or crowded places, or having contact with high-risk people.

In the Seattle area, the percentage is significantly higher, at 63%. And, once again, Seattle tops the list of 15 metros for concern about being in public places, just edging out Washington, D.C. The metro area where people expressed the least concern is Miami, at just under 50%. (The state where residents have the least concern about public spaces and crowds is Tennessee, at just 43%.)

The Household Pulse survey was conducted from Dec. 9 to 21. Nationally, close to 70,000 people responded to this survey, including 1,705 people in the Seattle area.

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