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Brick-and-mortar stores staged a comeback in 2021.

todayFebruary 27, 2022 1

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Americans shopped online like crazy during the pandemic, right? Motivated by fear or convenience, more of us grew comfortable clicking “buy” from our sofas — including to buy sofas — and there’s no turning back.

That is true. And also, well … no? Or maybe?

Fresh data from the U.S. government shows something that surprised me: Physical stores beat online shopping in 2021. No joke.

Americans spent 18 percent more on food, cars, furniture, electronics and other retail products last year compared with 2020, the Commerce Department disclosed on Friday. Online retail sales increased by 14 percent. In other words, e-commerce lost ground last year to brick-and-mortar stores.

Admittedly, 2021 was a strange year for shopping. More of us had the urge to browse in person than we did in the scary first months of Covid in the U.S. Climbing prices and shortages changed what people bought and where they shopped. And one year doesn’t alter the long-term trend that online shopping is grabbing more of Americans’ wallets.

But the comeback for physical stores also points to how difficult it can be to predict the speed at which technologies alter our behaviors and the effects if and when they do. The future does not necessarily arrive in a straight line.

My point isn’t confined to shopping, either. One of the big debates for our economies and lives is how much the coronavirus and the digital adaptations to it might permanently alter all aspects of how we spend our time, including the future of office work, moviegoing and exercise habits. The honest answer is that we don’t really know. Much has changed, but a lot has not.

Brian Wieser is one of my favorite numbers nerds, and he alerted me to the fact that physical stores won in 2021. Wieser, the global president of business intelligence for the advertising firm GroupM, said that he’d taken to zooming out in two-year blocks of time to assess the disruptive effects of the pandemic on businesses and us.

Wieser described what he’d seen as a “new plateau” — the pandemic accelerated digital trends that were already happening and kicked our usage to a higher level. A lot of people who research human behavior have likewise talked about the ways that we’ve reached familiarity with e-commerce, remote work, telemedicine and online socializing that might not have happened until 2025 or later absent a pandemic.

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