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Clicks and trips: Internet shopping

Technology is changing how we work, shop, interact with friends and colleagues, and communicate, but not always in the ways we anticipate. For example, conventional wisdom argues that telecommuting would lead to less driving. Not necessarily so, says Xinyu (Jason) Cao, an assistant professor of policy and planning at the Humphrey School, who studies technology and travel behavior and their effect on land use.

"Telecommuting reduces commuting trips," Cao notes, "but may increase the total number of non-work-related trips. The logic is that it increases free time so people are more likely to go places, such as drinking at Starbucks or shopping in the middle of the day."

Cao, Frank Douma, and students Fay Cleaveland, and Zhiyi Xu recently examined another technology that is expected to reduce travel: E-shopping via Internet. They found that while the potential to reduce travel (and even parking demand) exists, shopping decisions are complicated and the interactions among Internet use, shopping, and travel defy any quick or clear conclusions--at least for now. By giving shoppers more information and enticing them with more images of products, e-shopping may increase travel as well as decrease it.

Understanding e-shopping and its influence on travel is important for planners. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a large proportion of all trips are for shopping and errands. "Shopping is a significant part of daily travel," says Cao. While Internet shopping still accounts for less than five percent of total purchases, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, it has increased significantly and is expected to increase in the future.

"E-shopping can reduce the number of vehicles on the road, it can reduce emissions, it can even reduce parking demand, which has effects on land-use patterns," notes Cao. Its greatest impact likely is to be seen in the area of non-daily purchases, such as books, digital assets, and other entertainment.

Substitute or complement?

Like telecommuting, e-shopping's influence on travel demand is complicated, as studies in both the United States and Europe have shown. Sometimes e-shopping replaces travel to retail stores--a customer goes online, finds the item he or she wants, and buys it online. "This kind of substitution can reduce travel demand," says Cao. In other cases, e-shopping seems to induce shopping-related travel. While online, a customer notices a product, then decides to make a special trip to the store to buy it--a complementary effect. E-shopping may simply modify travel plans as well. A customer searches online for a product and decides to swing by the store while out doing other errands.

In addition to the complicated ways in which e-shopping influences whether and where individuals buy products, research also has been inconclusive about the effects of shoppers' location and demographics on decisions to shop and buy online. Two theories dominate discussions, says Cao. One--the efficiency theory--argues that people who live in areas more distant from retail stores are more likely to shop online because it saves time. The other theory--the innovation-diffusion theory--counters that people who live in urban areas have greater access to Internet technology, are more open to new ideas and technologies, and are, therefore, more likely to shop online.

In a recent research project, Cao's group tested both of these theories by surveying households in urban, suburban, and exurban neighborhoods of the Twin Cities. All of the households had access to the Internet. The survey asked respondents about their attitudes toward shopping, including price consciousness and how much they enjoyed shopping as a recreational activity. It also asked participants about specific buying habits and purchases of items not bought for daily use, including books, CDs, and DVDs. A series of detailed questions traced the role of the Internet in buying and travel decisions for recent purchases.

In addition to the survey, respondents were asked to fill out activity diaries for two days to capture the number and types of trips they took.

"The results provide evidence for both a substitution and a complementary effect," says Cao. When asked about their most recent online purchase, 29 percent of the respondents said they would have made a special trip to the store if the item had not been available online, while 14 percent said they would have ordered the item through a catalog or other alternative to a retail store. Eighteen percent would not have made the purchase at all and 39 percent would have combined the purchase with another trip to the store. Moreover, nearly half of the respondents (49.3 percent) said they had made a special trip to the store because of something they saw online.

But other factors also seem to affect travel decisions and Internet purchases. Controlling for these factors in future studies may lead to more clarity about the relationship between e-shopping and travel. For instance, Cao's study found that more frequent shopping is associated with factors like having children in the home, being retired, and having a broadband Internet connection. And, those who were long-time users of the Internet were less likely to shop in a store. Frequent product information search tends to correlate with larger amounts of in-store shopping.

The analysis also found that urban residents tended to shop more frequently, evidence supporting the innovation-diffusion theory. Cao's study also examined the behaviors of those who reported that they enjoy shopping more and found they were (not surprisingly) more likely to shop in a store and less likely to buy online. These people might look for an item online or compare prices there, but they liked the experience of making purchases in a store. The behavior of this subgroup may lead to skewed results in some surveys about e-shopping, Cao says. "The result suggests that if we do not control for shopping attitudes, we tend to underestimate the complementary effect between online shopping and in-store shopping," he says.

While the research sheds light on e-shopping patterns and the direction of influence among the Internet, shopping, and travels, it also raises questions. More research is needed in such areas as what role household shopping responsibility plays in in-store and online shopping, how e-shopping affects trip generation and trip chaining (how individual errands are linked together), how technology effects the shopping process overall, and how e-shopping varies depending on the type of product consumers are buying.

Cao is continuing his analysis of the Twin Cities data by reviewing the information generated in activity diaries respondents completed as part of the survey. For his next step, he plans to use a structural equations model to compare various daily activities with technology use and travel behaviors.

This research was conducted under the auspices of TechPlan, grants funded through the Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) Institute at the University of Minnesota. For more information, visit www.hhh.umn.edu/centers/slp/techplan.html.

--Mary Lahr Schier

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