Is Online Shopping OK During A Pandemic?

With stores and businesses closed or closing across the country and the world, lots of shoppers are moving online to get what they need. But what about the stuff we don’t really need so much as want? Is just-for-fun online shopping OK during a pandemic?

This post is adapted from my Social Distancing newsletter. Click here to read back issues and sign up for a daily dose of COVID-19 infotainment!

Personally, I’ve been pumping the brakes on my online shopping habits. Here’s why.

Most of the blog posts I’ve read about whether it’s safe to shop online right now have had one thing in common: They focus on the safety to the consumer. But as the consumer, I’m the person at lowest risk for exposure and spread of the virus. I can let a package sit in its own quarantine, clean it with disinfectant, wash the contents, do whatever I need to do to minimize any danger that it’s bringing COVID-19 into my home. But there are a whole bunch of people involved in the process before it gets to me, and they don’t have that luxury.

It starts with the folks who are actually manufacturing and/or packaging the product I’m ordering. Whatever it is I might want to order, it comes from somewhere. Someone has to physically put it in the box and get it in the mail. What are their working conditions like? Are they able to keep a safe distance from coworkers? Do they have adequate sanitary conditions at work? Would they rather be home safe with their kids, too? Is that a choice they don’t have because people like me are buying the products they pack?

Then there are the shippers themselves. Postal workers and drivers for FedEx and UPS say they are at greater risk of becoming ill. By late March, at least 40 U.S. Postal Service employees had tested positive for the virus.

A few weeks ago, I read a Facebook comment from the wife of a UPS driver asking people to stick to ordering things they need rather than putting her husband at increased risk as he delivers unnecessary parcels, and the replies were… something else. Let’s just say this time in history is bringing out the best in some people and the “quit crying” and “get off your high horse” in others. (Yes, those were comments that people actually made to her — because she suggested they forgo ordering movie theatre popcorn and candy out of respect for the safety of her husband and his co-workers.)

Amazon is a whole other tangle. Warehouse employees say their working conditions and performance benchmarks put them at increased risk for contracting the virus. At the same time, customer demand is up so much that Amazon is having trouble fulfilling orders, and it’s also hiring new employees and raising hourly wages at a time when a lot of people are suddenly out of work. Some employees say they’re resigned to the fact that working at Amazon means “we’re all going to get sick eventually.” (I also recommend being very cautious about shopping Amazon in general, especially when it comes to beauty products.)

On the other hand, there are small businesses that are desperately hurting for revenue, and many are asking customers to support them right now by ordering online. 

So. What’s a moral person to do? Is online shopping OK, or should we be holstering our credit cards for now? I wish I had the answer. Or knew that there was one to be had. All I can tell you is what I’m personally trying to do during these Hunger Games to feel a little bit less like I belong in the Capitol and a little bit more like Katniss wouldn’t wish me dead:

  • I’m weighing purchases carefully before I hit “Proceed to checkout.”

    I am what Facebook ad preferences categorize as an Engaged Shopper. Or, to put it in the words of Ms. Ariana Grande: “I see it. I like it. I want it. I got it.” I’m actively fighting that urge right now. Whatever I’m ordering, I’m asking someone to risk their health to deliver it. Is it worth it? Would I feel like it were worth it if it were me or my spouse who were doing this “essential” work? If it’s a small business asking for my support, can I provide it another way, like buying a gift certificate to use later on?
  • I’m looking for opportunities to support local businesses.

    In my area, there are locally owned stores of all kinds that are innovating their way through the pandemic. While non-essential retail stores aren’t allowed to open, we’ve seen lots of businesses, from toy stores to music shops and more, shifting to contactless home delivery or curbside pick-up. I’ve appreciated the opportunity to support local businesses in this low-risk way.
  • I’m looking for reassurance that the person packing my order is safe.

    Like many of you, I got pretty tired pretty quickly of all the emails from businesses telling me about the steps they were taking to keep their stores clean, especially if they didn’t mention any concrete steps for the protection of their employees. A few companies, though, sent messages that spoke directly to the health and safety of their warehouse employees. Those are the companies I’ll try to shop with if I need to order something.

    Another alternative, depending on what I need, is Etsy. When I shop with the maker marketplace, I feel more confident that I am buying from someone who has control over their working environment, health and safety, while also directly supporting a small business. (And there are lots of small-batch beauty and personal care products for sale there!)
  • I’m choosing slow shipping and USPS delivery.

    The U.S. Mail is going to keep coming. It’s kind of their brand. And a shocking number of entities insist on sending paper statements even though our accounts are all on autopay, so our letter carrier is going to be walking the block unless things really take a turn. Rather than add another stop for another delivery driver, to me it makes more sense to ship via the method that’s coming to the doorstep regardless.

    As for shipping time, there’s nothing I need right now that should take priority over shipments of, say, critical medical supplies. So if I do order, I’m willing to go to the back of the line and wait (and hopefully buy warehouse employees some breathing room, too).

As with all things coronavirus-related, the question of how to shop online, and whether it’s the right thing to do, is probably even more complex than I’ve made it sound. But as a super-shopper myself, I think the best each of us can do right now is stop and really think about where we’re shopping, what we’re buying, and the harm or good that may be caused by the dollars we choose to spend.

How has coronavirus changed what you’re shopping for? Is online shopping OK right now, or should we wait? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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