Online vs. In-Store

Brick-and-mortar stores endure: Despite predictions of an impending "retail apocalypse," in-person shopping remains central to American life. In fact, online shopping accounts for just 10% of retail sales nationwide, and malls have made an unlikely resurgence with many younger consumers. Still, the percentage of purchases conducted online has grown steadily in recent years, and that trend will almost certainly continue. Which physical stores will succumb to online competition in the coming years – and which are destined to survive?

To explore these compelling questions, we surveyed nearly 1,000 shoppers on their purchase habits and preferences both in person and online. Our data reveals the causes of these choices and generational divides in consumer behavior. From Amazon's ubiquity to grocery delivery, our conclusions illuminate the trends shaping modern shopping – now and in the decades to come. Keep reading to see how your purchase patterns compare to others' preferences.

Purchases by Platform

Categories we shop for the most and how we shop for them

When it comes to daily necessities, in-store shopping still dominates: Of those who had purchased perishable groceries, for example, 85% had done so in person. Nonperishable items and essentials such as paper towels were nearly as likely to be purchased in stores. This data likely reflects the immediate need for the products in question; when you're running short on toilet paper, even expedited shipping won't do. Moreover, larger items tend to be in-person buys. Roughly 60% of home and garden products, auto parts, and pet food were purchased at a physical retail location. This pattern probably relates to matters of expense and convenience: Despite shipping companies' best efforts, transporting large purchases long distances can cost a lot and take a while.

In other categories, however, online buying is now the dominant mode. Two-thirds of those who purchased books and media did so online, a trend that continues to threaten brick-and-mortar booksellers. In the era of e-books and online streaming, these products can be consumed digitally, not just purchased online. In other industries, in-person stores and digital sellers seemed to split consumer dollars relatively evenly. Buyers of clothing and beauty products were especially likely to buy these items via both methods, indicating that customers shop quite flexibly in these categories.

In-Person Items

Top categories for shopping online vs. in store

Our findings reveal contrasting purchase patterns for "want" and "need" products: We obtain our most essential, recurring items in person and turn to the internet for entertainment goods. From perishables to pet food, the products that most respondents had recently purchased tended to be obtained in stores. Rarer purchases, such as musical instruments or sports memorabilia, were more often bought online. This trend reflects shopper priorities in each case: In the pursuit of the perfect fan item or vintage guitar, you'll want to search far and wide – and won't mind waiting a few days for your purchase to arrive. Conversely, when you're buying regular commodities, speed and ease matter more than selection.

Online buying wasn't reserved for rare items: 71% of respondents purchased books or media in the last three months, and the majority of this cohort did so digitally. A similar pattern emerged for electronics and associated accessories. The shift of these industries toward online shopping has doomed many once-mighty companies. From Blockbuster and Borders to Circuit City and Radio Shack, several chains in these sectors have failed to keep pace with customers moving online.

Ordering Often

How frequently do we shop online and what kind of online shopping is most common?

Through innovations like one-click purchases, retailers continually attempt to increase the frequency with which we buy online. Thanks to their efforts or the allure of online shopping in general, most consumers buy something digitally on multiple occasions each month. In fact, over a quarter of respondents reported ordering something six or more times per month. Millennials were especially susceptible to online shopping's appeal, ordering significantly more often than older generations. As some experts have noted, millennials have a particularly fraught relationship with Amazon: Although many distrust its monopolizing tendencies, they've come to depend on its convenience.

Indeed, online mass marketplaces like Amazon were the most common way consumers shopped online. Still, many brands chafe under the juggernaut's platform, and some have stopped selling on Amazon entirely. Seventy-one percent of online shoppers also said they went directly to company websites for goods, suggesting many consumers are willing to venture beyond major online marketplaces. Additionally, a significant portion of shoppers went for thriftier options, such as auction sites like eBay, deal sites like Groupon, or social media marketplaces. Tech-savvy millennials were most likely to shop on these deal-centric platforms: With sky-high student debt and stagnant incomes, this generation has plenty of reasons to be frugal.

Online Shopping Sources

Most commonly-shopped online vendors, by generation

For shoppers of all ages, Amazon was the top online shopping destination. Our results reflect the company's unprecedented dominance: Amazon now accounts for nearly half of all internet sales in the U.S. Walmart ranked second for online shopping in every generation. Lower down the list, however, intergenerational differences emerged. Millennials, for example, were far more likely to shop online at Apple than their elders. Indeed, recent research suggests this generation possesses an unparalleled attachment to the brand.

One driver of Amazon's e-commerce supremacy is its Prime program: Prime members spend more than other customers, and the majority renew their memberships annually. Among our respondents, the most appealing Prime perk was the free two-day shipping on eligible items (the company has even announced plans to move to one-day shipping soon). Others joined Prime to capitalize on the sheer variety of products available, while others appreciated the array of related services included in Prime memberships. With these perks included, it's no wonder an estimated 80% of households now have at least one Prime membership.

Procuring Produce

How many people are comfortable with having their groceries delivered?

As we noted earlier, groceries remain relatively immune to the shift toward online shopping. Several companies have set out to change that dynamic, saving consumers a trip to the store. For our respondents, Amazon Prime Now was the most popular option: 62% of people who had shopped for groceries digitally did so on the service. Although only available in select cities, the program is rapidly expanding, fueled by Amazon's partnership with Whole Foods Market. Instacart has also carved out a significant slice of the market, even though recent troubles with its contractor workforce threaten its continued growth.

Millennials were most likely to utilize grocery delivery services, with roughly a third using one before. But in every age group, those who had not tried grocery delivery were largely uninterested in experimenting with this alternative. Industry experts contend that many shoppers are attached to the experience of walking through the aisles and selecting produce themselves. Moreover, online shopping could cost grocery stores in the long run: When consumers choose products from a digital list, they don't throw impulse buys in their carts as often.

Shopping Mode Motives

The top reasons people prefer in-store vs. online shopping

For those who still prefer shopping in stores, the chance to examine products in person was a top priority. Among this group, 73% said seeing or touching an item was essential, while another 50% said they wished to try items before buying. Immediacy was another in-person advantage: 72% preferred buying in stores to avoid waiting. Despite the ever-growing number of retailers offering free shipping with no minimum purchase requirements, 52% said they avoided online shopping to skip shipping costs.

For online purchasers, however, the ability to shop on their own schedule and from any location was the most powerful incentive. Additionally, 72% said shopping online enabled easy price comparisons, and a similar percentage said buying online saved them time. Interestingly, more than half of this group said they preferred online shopping because it allowed them to avoid other people. Some studies suggest this impulse is particularly strong among millennials, who prefer the simplicity of online ordering to interpersonal interactions.

Online, Insecure?

How much do fraudulent charges cost consumers?

For all its alluring conveniences, online shopping entails distinct risks as well. Chief among them is the prospect of payment information being stolen, leading to unauthorized spending. And how much does that cost consumers? According to victims of fraudulent charges, the median amount they were charged was $250. Unfortunately, many may experience this frightening challenge in the coming months: According to experts, this type of fraud is on the rise nationwide. Thankfully, federal protections for credit card users are quite strong, and debit card users can avert liability so long as they report the theft quickly. While the average fraudulent charge was $250, debit and credit card users are typically liable for much less.

In the wake of the fraudulent charge, roughly two-thirds of respondents contacted their bank or credit card company to try to resolve the issue. Another 38% contacted the company involved in the fraudulent charge directly, perhaps to gather more context regarding the suspicious charge. Additionally, 17% reached out to the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, which is tasked with educating and advising consumers affected by this form of fraud. Sadly, few consumers could rely on their banks to protect them proactively. Just 5% of respondents reported that their bank handled the fraudulent charge without any prompting on their part.

Online vs. Brick-and-Mortar: Competitors or Complements?

The results of this project reaffirm some familiar narratives: Online shopping is virtually compulsive for modern consumers, and e-commerce juggernauts like Amazon reap the benefits. Moreover, younger shoppers are particularly inclined to make purchases online, suggesting the rise of digital retail will only intensify. Still, our findings also present resistance to shopping online, especially in certain industries. Grocery shopping, for example, remains largely conducted in person. Moreover, most people who do their food shopping in physical locations said they're unlikely to shift to shopping online.

These conclusions demand a more nuanced approach, moving beyond the online versus in-person retail binary. Indeed, our results suggest that each buying mode possesses definite advantages, and customers perceive the benefits of both. Perhaps companies should emphasize integrating their efforts, rather than prioritizing one to the exclusion of the other. If shopping online and in person can be seamlessly combined, consumers and the companies that serve them will undoubtedly benefit.

About Signs.com

When consumers enjoy endless shopping options, businesses must do more to bring in customers. However you want to capture the attention of your audience, we've got you covered. Signs.com is a leader in customized signage, including banners, and window decals, empowering companies around the country to make a great impression. From custom flags to pop-up tents, our products help you stand out and sell more.


To compile the data shown above, we surveyed 983 people on their shopping preferences and habits. We asked them about the categories they've bought from in the last three months and whether they bought those things online, in a store, or both. Because we surveyed via the internet, we recognize that our respondent population may tend to be more tech-savvy and younger, and thus, may not totally reflect the habits of people who don't use the internet. As with every survey, respondents may be biased by recency or other commonly known biases present in any survey. We made every good faith effort to control for these, and we present this data for exploratory purposes only.


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