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Transition from physical to online shopping alternatives due to the pandemic

A recent study from ITRL researcher Claudia Andruetto examines exactly how we have changed our shopping behavior during Covid-19, who needed to buy work-related items and who chose to stop shopping trips altogether? We sat down with Claudia to find out more about her paper.

Portrait of Claudia Andruetto
Claudia Andruetto, researcher.

Researcher Claudia Andruetto answers our questions regarding her new pre-print:

“Transition from physical to online shopping alternatives due to the COVID-19 pandemic”

The paper was written by Claudia, Elisa Bin, Yusak Susilo, and Anna Pernestål.

In order to make ITRL’s research more accessible to both the industry and the public, we asked a range of questions that give an overview of Claudia’s paper and inspire you to learn more.

What is the article about?

We started with the problem of Covid-19 and the fact that governments have responded differently: we wanted to understand the effects of these lockdown strategies on the change of behaviour that people have. Especially we wanted to focus on the transition in shopping behaviour between physical and online activities. We’ve already wrote one paper before which was based on a survey that we distributed during April and May 2020: in the survey there were both questions about people’s mobility and shopping behaviour. This second paper focuses more on the shift in shopping behaviour.

We wanted to write this paper because most of the analysis – when we started writing it – was focusing on the impacts of public transport ridership, how much traffic was reduced, and in general on people’s movement. But there wasn’t very much attention on the behavioural transition that an individual needs to make in their daily activities regarding shopping.

How did you conduct the survey?

In total the number of respondents were 781, but we selected only people in Italy and Sweden, so we were left with 530 respondents. From these, we had 212 from Sweden and 318 from Italy. In our sample people are slightly more highly educated than the average citizen for both countries which could result in a bias, also when it comes to employment our sample has more employment than the average. We spread the survey through our network and tried to expand as much as possible into other networks: we prioritized it being fast over being highly spread, so we have some bias as a result. Also for the population density, we have a very high density in the Swedish responses as the respondents were primarily from Stockholm and Gothenburg.

What were the results?

We analysed the answers and to put it in context, we only had Italy and Sweden as respondent’s residence. We found that generally in Italy respondents had more of a shift towards online behaviour and they also had a bigger reduction in physical trips. This was because the restrictions in Italy were more strict, while in Sweden the lockdown was less hard and primarily based on recommendations. The actual percentage of online shopping in Italy was still lower during the pandemic compared to Sweden but the increase was larger. In Italy we also saw more people that bought work related items and that Italian residents were less ready to from home. Eurostat statistics from 2019  says that less than 5% percent of people worked from home “usually” or “sometimes” in Italy. This was a very low number: most workers were always going to the workplace and were not ready to work from home, which explains why people were more likely to purchase work related items in Italy.

We also analysed if this shift, or difference in behaviour was somehow correlated to the population density and the built environment. We only found one correlation: people living in higher density areas were correlated with a higher increase in online shopping. But we didn’t find anything else that was relevant: this is quite interesting actually, as a lot of studies point out that depending on where you live you are more likely to have certain behaviours, but we didn’t see this in our case. It could be either because we had a small sample and most of our respondents were living in dense areas. But it could also be because of the nature of the pandemic, much different than other disruption or changes.

We also asked the questions both on grocery shopping and non-grocery shopping, which showed that it really matters for different people to still go to the store to do non-grocery shopping. One example is that people with children in their households tend to not give up their non-grocery shopping. This could be because depending on who you are and the needs of your household you might see some types of shopping as essential. One other example is that if the respondents lived with older people in a household they would buy more work-related items, probably because if you live with vulnerable relatives at home you don’t want to commute and therefore need to work from home.

Have there been any surprising results?

The fact that the population density did not matter was surprising, but also that the respondents were impacted differently depending on what they considered essential. For example, we divided the sample in groups and we saw that around 9% of the sample does not do any grocery shopping (nor online or at the physical store). These people must rely on someone else to do their grocery shopping: this group was mainly from Italy. This could mean that one person takes cares of the whole family also due to the stricter restrictions, so if you’re a student or older you have to rely on someone else.

We also wanted to see who stopped all activities (both physical and online) for non-grocery shopping, which was a larger part of the sample, around 20%. These are people that actually gave it up because they don’t think it’s essential. In this group we saw that there were not many households with kids. If you are a parent, you will probably need to buy clothes, toys, and your shopping behaviour is influenced by your kids.

What is the take home message?

We analysed two different countries, Sweden and Italy, and saw that since the countries have different social and economic structures, there is a need of different measures and policies. One important take-away from our study is that both the social demographic and household structures matter in determining the change in behaviour that different people had during the pandemic. It is important to understand that people have different perspectives and therefore experience the pandemic differently, and consider this when designing policies.

You can read Claudia's preprint here , or feel free to contact her  for any questions or comments.