Working from home and spending billions shopping online

(Illustration: Van Santen and Bolleurs for The Wall Street Journal)
(Illustration: Van Santen and Bolleurs for The Wall Street Journal)

Summary

Without the boss nearby, who can resist placing that Amazon order?

Click. Scroll. Add to cart. Now toggle back to that Zoom meeting.

On our remote days, it turns out, we shop while we work. Researchers say it’s driving billions in online sales. There we all are, browsing everything from toothpaste to concert tickets while nodding along on a video call, keying in credit-card info in between dashing off emails to the boss.

Shopping away our entire workday is obviously a bad move. But indulging in a little isn’t going to tank productivity. We pause and procrastinate at the office, too, in ways that are acceptable there. At home, we gather around clothing reviews like we’re hanging out at the office water cooler, and tick errands off our list via Target.com.

With no one looking over our shoulders, we can puncture the monotony of another vanilla workday with the dopamine high of finding the perfect pair of shoes. Even if we might sometimes regret it.

“I wouldn’t have bought this stupid thing if it weren’t for All Hands," Megan Morreale, a content marketer in New Jersey, thought to herself after purchasing an influencer’s branded candle during a companywide meeting. Bored or between calls, the 32-year-old scrolls Instagram, TikTok and YouTube. Days later, subpar art supplies or a viral dress that really doesn’t suit her land on her doorstep. Oh well.

“It’s a little bit of fun during the day," she says, without the fear you’ll look like a slacker. At the office, she would never. “All the guilt is completely gone when you work from home."

A $375 billion boost

Our collective retail therapy adds up. New research from Stanford University, Northwestern University and the Mastercard Economics Institute, the payments company’s research arm, finds the pandemic prompted a rise in online shopping that’s persisted. Last year, for example, we spent $375 billion more than we would have otherwise, the report estimates.

The brunt of that bump is being driven by people working hybrid or fully remote schedules, says Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist and co-author. County-level data shows that in areas where work-from-home jobs are prevalent, online shopping is up, while it’s back to prepandemic levels in places where more folks work in-person.

Along with walking the dog and getting a jump on dinner, workday shopping is a way to make efficient use of our time, Bloom says, and take advantage of the fact that we have more control over it at home.

“People just can’t work continuously without taking a break," he says.

Get away without leaving your desk

At home, there’s freedom and time, but also often inertia.

“There’s no coffee break, there’s no somebody’s birthday," says Ace Bhattacharjya, chief executive of a company that helps folks access their medical records.

Instead, there’s perusing a limited-edition sneaker drop, or collectible figurines on eBay, Bhattacharjya says, recalling some of his recent scrolling. Everything in stores looks the same these days, he finds, but online he can jump down a rabbit hole into random microcommunities and inspiration. Turning his attention from the work on his computer monitor to e-commerce on his iPad Pro gives him a jolt of creativity and energy.

Besides, the lines between work and everything else have grown hazy. Bhattacharjya’s hours bleed into the weekends. That can feel like permission to wedge some personal stuff into the workweek.

Ooh, a sale!

Weekly online spending peaks from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays, as the workweek slows to its languorous end, data from Adobe shows. More than a quarter of women surveyed last year by shopping portal Rakuten said they typically shop online during work hours. For Gen Z, the share was 41%.

Jenny Hirschey, who runs an Instagram jewelry shop from St. Paul, Minn., was surprised to find about 80% of her sales are made during the workday.

“I get comments all the time like, ‘I’m running to a meeting but this heart charm is mine! Sold! I’ll pay you in 30 minutes,’" she says.

Big retailers have noticed the trend, too, says Liza Amlani, a retail consultant and adviser based in Toronto who’s worked with companies like Under Armour and Lands’ End.

Some of her clients are timing things like product drops and marketing emails around noon or 3 p.m.

“We know that you’re on your computer," captive and craving a pick-me-up, she says.

Retailers have also ramped up their investments in online tech, and are flooding their websites with more product, she adds. Algorithm-powered recommendations are getting so powerful it can feel like they know your subconscious desires before you do. Oh, and did you forget about that item you halfheartedly popped in your cart? Here’s 20% off.

“You’re getting so much more of that reminder and that call to buy," says Nancy Wong, a consumer psychologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The seduction of online shopping

Bricks-and-mortar browsing comes with unknowns and annoyances: traffic en route, long lines at the store, finding out what you want isn’t in stock.

In contrast, Wong says, clicking the buy button online brings a satisfying certainty, and a double hit of pleasure. There’s the immediate high of plucking the item from the virtual shelf—then, the anticipation of its arrival. Sure, that gadget might be a flop once it gets here. But it’s on its way.

“It’s so seductive," says Michelle Drapkin, a therapist in New Jersey who works a hybrid schedule.

When she worked for a big healthcare company years back, she’d never dream of pulling up Amazon on her office computer.

On her work-from-home days now, she’ll sometimes flop on her bed with a laptop and check purchases off her to-do list. It’s relaxing, she says. “I can do something different than work that’s still productive."

Some purchases, like groceries, keep her household running. Others, like a new dress for a Kentucky Derby party, feel like a treat.

By the time the purchase arrives, though, she’s usually forgotten what’s inside the box.

Write to Rachel Feintzeig at Rachel.Feintzeig@wsj.com

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