Americans spend two hours less a month on shopping than they did 15 years ago

Online shopping is probably the reason Americans spend less time shopping.
Online shopping is probably the reason Americans spend less time shopping.
Image: AP/Rich Pedroncelli
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Americans spend a lot less time shopping than they used to.

According to data collected by the US Census, the average person in the US 15 or older spent about 10 hours shopping for consumer goods per month in 2018, down from about 12 hours in 2003. This includes time spent shopping in person, over the phone or on the internet. Comparable data on shopping behavior is only available since 2003, the year the US Census began conducting the American Time Use Survey, which polls Americans about how they use their time on a given day.

There are two likely culprits for the decline.

One, online shopping is saving people lots of time. Rather than have to go to the store—or three stores—to buy a TV, paper towels, and sneakers, many people now do it on their computer or mobile phone. The share of all retail sales made online rose from less than 2% in the first quarter of 2003 to about about 10% in 2019 (Amazon accounts for about half of this spending). People who live farther from brick-and-mortar stores are more likely to switch to online shopping, according to a recently released research paper (paywall) published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study’s authors suggest that people in rural areas and smaller cities have gained the most in terms of time and money saved from online shopping.

The other likely reason for the decline are big box stores. Retailers like Walmart and Target make it easier for people get all their shopping done in one trip. As the economist Daniel Hamermesh points out in his recently published book Spending Time, rather than getting shoes at one store, groceries at another, and a kitchenware at a third, many shoppers are doing this all at one store. The share of retail sales at warehouse clubs (like Costco) and superstores (like Walmart) tripled from 1995 to 2010. This means fewer shopping trips. The share of the US population shopping on any given day fell from above 41% in 2013 to less than 40% in 2018.

Nearly every age group is spending less time on shopping, but the biggest decline has been for the young. Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 saw the largest decrease in their shopping times from 2003-2005 to 2016-2018. This may be because younger consumers are more likely to shop online.

So what are people doing with this new found time on their hands? Each person will use that extra time differently, but time-use data shows that Americans are watching more TV, playing more games, spending more time with their kids, and sleeping more. All are probably more enjoyable than standing in line at the grocery store.