Retail and logistics experts say online shopping is permissible and encouraged during the coronavirus outbreak - and now I'm going to order a weighted blanket
Crystal Cox / Business Insider
- While in self-quarantine, I've been hesitant to place any online orders for fear of putting delivery workers and myself at risk.
- However, when I started to hear of friends placing orders for puzzles, house plants, and even stationary bikes, I started to reconsider my moratorium on online shopping.
- Retail and logistics experts told me that as long as consumers aren't hoarding essential items, dabbing in online shopping is permissible in these trying times.
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The age of the coronavirus is proving to be a confusing time to be a consumer.
Since I began my own self-quarantine in Brooklyn eight days ago, I've limited trips to the grocery store, stayed six feet away from fellow humans at the pharmacy, and avoided online shopping altogether - the latter a personal decision out of concern for the health of delivery workers. Though companies are offering contact-less delivery options, information regarding how long the coronavirus lives on surfaces like cardboard remains somewhat inconclusive. I didn't want to put myself or others at risk.
As the week wore on, however, I started to hear about the online comfort purchases of my friends - puzzles, house plants, stationary bikes - and wondered if perhaps my moratorium on e-commerce was too strict. Truth be told, I really want a weighted blanket to help get me through these trying times. But should I buy one? Is a weighted blanket really "essential"?
As I ruminated on this moral quandary, I decided to consult a few retail experts (as well my therapist), who all convinced me that yes, I should go ahead and buy a weighted blanket. Here's what they had to say.
Essential items for trying times
As quarantine periods wear on and "shelter-in-place" mandates proliferate across the US, there's been a pervasive gray area around what constitutes "essential" versus "nonessential" business. As explained by my colleague Irene Jiang, while these parameters are determined by individual cities, universally essential businesses include supermarkets, big-box stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and hardware stores, among others.
Even major e-commerce companies have started to set their own standards on what types of products are considered essential in an effort to manage overwhelming demand. On Tuesday, Amazon announced that it would only accept six categories of items to its warehouses through April 5 in order to prioritize high-demand products.
In this case, "essential" boils down to six categories: baby products; health and household (including personal care appliances); beauty and personal care; grocery; industrial and scientific; pet supplies. By Amazon standards, a weighted blanket would fall under health and household - an "essential item."
Meanwhile, as stores close en masse to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, retailers are encouraging us to browse their online stores and make purchases while holed up in our homes indefinitely. We still have the option to buy things like apparel and kitchen tools online, but should we?
Jonathan Treiber, CEO of the offer management platform RevTrax, says yes, though acknowledged the "tricky balance" of navigating an uncertain retail landscape. Still, he said the larger concern is not people like myself buying weighted blankets, but rather shoppers hoarding essential items like toilet paper and pain relievers in bulk.
"My perspective is that consumers should be allowed to purchase whatever they want online given the restrictions imposed on purchasing items in physical stores during coronavirus," Treiber said. "Consumers should use good judgment and avoid hoarding essential products online to ensure that there are enough rations for those who may truly need them."
Early data actually shows that consumers are making deliberate and mindful decisions when it comes to online shopping in the past week. An Attentive report on e-commerce trends during the coronavirus outbreak found that essential product categories like food, health and wellness, and pet supplies are trending upward, while less essential categories like apparel and automotive-related items are trending downward.
Meanwhile, categories like electronics and health experienced a 91% and 109% increase, respectively, from March 10 to March 17. Under the health category, Attentive noted increases specifically in-home gym equipment, supplements, and health foods.
Can shipping companies handle the influx of online orders? A logistics expert says yes.
While I was mostly convinced by this point that I should buy the blanket, I was still concerned about how this might muddy up logistics. Are delivery trucks so overloaded that my order might push them to the brink? Could my weighted blanket inhibit someone from receiving an order of medical supplies they desperately need?
Mike Howell - co-founder and CEO of Dolly, a logistics and supply chain company that specializes in transporting the "big, bulky, awkward, and heavy" - said the likely answer is no, in part because companies like his own have expanded their networks of trucking fleets. Though Dolly specializes in furniture and appliances, he said he is currently in talks with suppliers of essential items like bulk grocery goods to assist with delivery as needed.
Howell said that his drivers are independent contractors, and as such are able to opt-out of working if they feel unsafe. Still, he said that most have continued driving, in part because Dolly has tried to be thorough in ensuring they are outfitted with the proper safety protections. This week, the company also announced a no-contact delivery service that adds an extra layer of precaution amid the coronavirus.
When asked about possible disruptions to orders and delayed shipments as demand rises, Howell said he's confident the COVID-19 outbreak won't prove to be a major hindrance to logistics.
"We're in the delivery business ultimately, so by and large, we're thinking about what we can be doing as a company to help consumers that align with essential items and demand," he said. "There are some hiccups here and there, but there's nothing massively off track and I'm not aware of that happening any time soon."
With this in mind, Treiber of RevTrax said consumers don't need to feel shameful about buying goods online, especially from small businesses currently hit by the blow of temporary closures.
"In this environment, consumers should support any of their favorite retailers that may be suffering from forced store closures due to coronavirus," he said.
Alright, the jury rests. Weighted blanket, here I come.