79 percent of Americans now shop online, but it’s cost more than convenience that sways them

Eight in 10 Americans are now shopping online, according to a new study from Pew Research out this morning. That’s 79 percent of U.S. consumers who shop on the web or their phones, up from just 22 percent back in 2000. Over half (51 percent) have also bought something from their mobile phone, the study found, and 15 percent purchased after clicking through on a link shared on social media.

While the study’s main focus is to detail how many shop online, where, how often, and using which platforms, what’s more interesting is how it teases out the answers as to why.

Surprisingly, it’s not necessarily the convenience of being able to click a few buttons to have products shipped to your door that consumers said was most appealing: it’s cost, and the ability to research those costs and other matters, more efficiently across the web ahead of their purchase.


This is an interesting takeaway on consumer behavior at a time when so many startup businesses are trying to solve the pain points that come with having to actually go out and shop. Companies are rolling out services ranging from same-day delivery to subscription boxes of everyday items, like tampons or toothbrushes or those that save you the hassle of having to visit the grocery store.

In fact, this has been one of the criticisms of Silicon Valley’s approach to the new online economy.

As General Catalyst investment associate Katherine Boyle recently noted in a TechCrunch column: “In Silicon Valley, people strive to conserve time. In the rest of America, people conserve money.”

This is true, according to Pew’s findings. 65 percent of online shoppers in Pew’s study said that, all things being equal, they’d prefer to shop in a physical store.

Of course, that desire is something they’re expressing more in abstract, Pew notes. And the percentage of those who say they would rather shop local brick-and-mortar stores greatly decreases depending on how frequently they go online to make purchases.

For example, 62 percent of those who buy online on a weekly basis said they would rather go online that shop a physical store. But 82 percent of those who don’t even make an online purchase even once a month said they would prefer to shop in physical stores.


But when it comes down to where people end up choosing to shop, it’s often a matter of price.

65 percent of online shoppers said if they needed to make a purchase, they’d compare real-world prices with those online and then buy where they could get the best deal. Only 21 percent said they’d buy without checking online prices for comparison’s sake, and only 14 percent said they’d buy online without checking retail prices.

Also interesting is how consumers responded to questions about the factors they take into consideration when they’re shopping for something they’ve never bought before. Compared with numerous other factors, the convenience of being able to make a purchase without going to the store is at the bottom of the list of what people considered important.

Only 42 percent said this was either “somewhat” or “extremely” important, for example. Meanwhile, things they considered more important included comparing prices (86% said somewhat or extremely important), asking questions (84%), buying from sellers they’re familiar with (84%), looking at the product in person (78%), and getting advice from people they know (77%), reading online reviews (74%).


Online reviews have become very important to Americans’ purchasing decisions, Pew also found. 82 percent say they consult online ratings when buying for the first time, and nearly half (46%) said that reviews can help them feel more confident about their purchases.

However, shoppers have begun to lose faith in the trustworthiness of online reviews. 48 percent say it’s often hard to tell if these reviews are truthful and unbiased. This problem, in large part, has likely been exacerbated by the situation of paid reviews. For example, Amazon recently cracked down on incentivized reviews (those where the reviewer received a free product or discount), in an effort to make its reviews more authentic.

The larger report also delves into topics like “showrooming” (checking online prices while shopping a physical store – something 45% have done); social media’s role in purchases; and payments.

On that last front, it seems that the use of cash on the decline. 24 percent say they don’t make any purchases with cash during a typical week. Another 24 percent say they use cash for nearly all purchases. And the other half says it’s a mix.


While the report didn’t dig into newer payment technologies deeply, it did note that 12 percent of Americans have paid for purchases by swiping or scanning their cellphones at the register. And in perhaps another example of technology not connecting with the average user, 39 percent said they’ve now heard of bitcoin, but only 1 percent have actually used it.

The full report is available on Pew’s website.