E-commerce Acceleration

It may not come as a surprise that e-commerce is up in 2020. Pandemic-related safety precautions and stay-at-home orders have forced a lot of business online over the last few months. The newest numbers from the Census Bureau give a picture of just how extensive that shift has been in the United States. Take a look at this chart from the Census’ most recent quarterly report on e-commerce in the retail sector:


Image Description: A chart titled ‘Estimated Quarterly U.S. Retail E-commerce Sales as a Percent of Total Quarterly Retail Sales: 1st Quarter 2011 to 2nd Quarter 2020’. The chart shows a steady rise in the share of e-commerce sales from under five percent in 2011 to just under twelve percent in the first quarter of 2020, followed by a rapid spike to over fifteen percent in the second quarter of 2020.
Image Description: A chart titled Estimated Quarterly U.S. Retail E-commerce Sales as a Percent of Total Quarterly Retail Sales: 1st Quarter 2011 to 2nd Quarter 2020. The chart shows a steady rise in the share of e-commerce sales from under five percent in 2011 to just under twelve percent in the first quarter of 2020, followed by a rapid spike to over fifteen percent in the second quarter of 2020.  


Look at that spike in the second quarter of 2020! E-commerce’s share of total retail sales steadily grew from under five percent in 2011 to about 12 percent in the first quarter of 2020. But the second quarter of 2020 (April, May, & June) saw an unprecedented and rapid jump to over fifteen percent. (Now, it’s important to note that if you take a look at the full report you’ll see that total retail sales have dipped this year, so this chart is just showing a spike in the overall percentage taking place online, not a spike in total sales.An analyst at Adobe estimated that the pandemic may have jumped the e-commerce economy four to six years ahead of where it would otherwise be, while McKinsey estimates that e-commerce may have accelerated as far as ten years ahead of expectations.


So where does that leave e-commerce going forward? Are current levels the new floor or might we see a return to normal over the next few quarters? And, really, how much does that even matter? Ignore the spike in 2020 and that chart still shows steady growth in e-commerce year after year. If anything, the spike last quarter illustrates that e-commerce has not found its ceiling. And that’s not just retail. Take a look at the Census’ E-commerce historical data tables and you’ll see the same steady growth in e-commerce in the manufacturing and wholesale sectors. In May, the Census Bureau published the 2018 data for the annual report E-Stats: Measuring the E-commerce EconomyAbsolute numbers for the size of the 2018 e-commerce economy in the manufacturing sector, service industries, retail trade, and merchant wholesale trade were all up compared to 2017 levels.


Even a post-pandemic return to normal is a return to a world where e-commerce continues to expand. 

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