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New Insights on Retail E-Commerce

The U.S. Census Bureau has been collecting data on retail sales since the 1950s and data on e-commerce retail sales since 1998. As the internet has become ubiquitous, many retailers have created websites and even entire divisions devoted to fulfilling online orders. Many consumers have turned to e-commerce as a matter of convenience or to increase the variety of goods available to them. Whatever the reason, retail e-commerce sales have skyrocketed and the internet will undoubtedly continue to influence how consumers shop, underscoring the need for good data to track this increasingly important economic activity.

In June 2017, the Census Bureau released a new supplemental data table on retail e-commerce by type of retailer. The Census Bureau developed these estimates by re-categorizing e-commerce sales data from its existing "electronic shopping" sales data according to the primary business type of the retailer, such as clothing stores, food stores, or electronics stores. This report examines how the new estimates enhance our understanding of where consumers are shopping online and also provides an overview of trends in retail and e-commerce sales. Findings from this report include:

  • E-commerce sales accounted for 7.2 percent of all retail sales in 2015, up dramatically from 0.2 percent in 1998.
  • E-commerce sales have been growing nine times faster than traditional in-store sales since 1998.
  • In 2015, 87 percent of total retail e-commerce sales, or $294.8 billion, were attributed to electronic shopping and mail-order houses, which includes both Internet-only businesses and traditional stores' online divisions. The new data released by Census shows that nonstore retailers, or businesses with little to no physical store establishments, accounted for 65 percent, or $192.1 billion, of these sales, while the online and catalog divisions of traditional retailers accounted for the remaining $102.7 billion.
  • When e-commerce sales from electronic shopping and mail-order houses are attributed to the primary business activity of their brick-and-mortar stores, e-commerce sales accounted for 18 percent of total sales from electronics and appliance stores, 10 percent from miscellaneous store retailers, and 10 percent from clothing and clothing accessories stores.
  • Census data are also available for e-commerce sales by type of product, and these data show that consumers purchase a wide range of products online. In 2015, "other merchandise," including collectibles, souvenirs, auto parts and accessories, hardware, lawn and garden equipment and supplies and jewelry, accounted for the largest share of e-commerce sales from online businesses at $52.9 billion, or 18 percent of all retail e-commerce from these types of businesses. Clothing and clothing accessories accounted for another 18 percent at $52.1 billion. Online consumers also purchased $28.9 billion of furniture and home furnishings (10 percent of the total) and $26.1 billion of electronics and appliances (9 percent).
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