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Key eCommerce Trends in USA and What They Mean for Southeast Asia

Written by
Benedict Leong
Published on
October 1, 2020
Updated on
June 26, 2023
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With the world’s largest GDP in 2020 at USD 20.93 trillion, and the world’s second-largest eCommerce market, the United States of America can quickly become one of your biggest lanes when it comes to cross-border eCommerce.1

The USA’s Broader Social and Economic Context (Q3 2021)

2020 saw the COVID-19 pandemic force many governments to set policies to stem the virus’ spread. The United States’ policies and restrictions vary by state, which themselves vary depending on the severity of the situation in said states.

USA’s various states instated varying degrees of restrictions, the height of which took place between April and May 2020. As of the time of writing (early September 2021), 45 states have lifted “shelter at home” or “stay at home” restrictions. You can see a regularly updated resource summarising all this on USA Today.2

COVID-19’s 2020 outbreak saw brick and mortar retail dip by around 25 per cent in Q1 2020.3 After the lockdowns were lifted, Deloitte found that eCommerce’s share of total spend online saw a massive jump from around 25 per cent to 40 per cent when comparing April 2019 to the same period in April 2020.

The first half of 2021 saw retail sales begin recovering. In March 2021, money from stimulus cheques encouraged people to spend on sporting goods, clothing and food and beverages.4 Amid employment and inflation concerns, retail sales still managed to increase in June compared to May.5

However, when July rolled around, retail sales declined by 1.1 per cent compared to June. This drop was attributed to government stimulus drying up along with worries over the delta variant of COVID-19.6 USA’s infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned on August 1, 2021 that the USA will not lock down again to curb COVID-19 but mentioned that “things are going to get worse” in light of the Delta variant causing cases to surge.7

With this in the broader context, we’ll need to ask: “how is all this going to affect eCommerce in the USA?”

  • Population - 332.0 million people
  • Total Consumer spending
  • USD 12.5 trillion in 20208 vs USD 13 trillion in 20199
  • B2C eCommerce Sales Total Revenue10
  • USD 792 billion in 2020,11, 12
  • Internet Usage Statistics (as % of USA population)13
  • Internet Penetration - 90%
  • eCommerce Penetration - 77%
  • Social Media Penetration - 72.3%
  • De Minimis Rate - USD 800

The USA’s eCommerce market may be second to that of China’s but it has great growth potential. As opposed to China’s fairly high eCommerce usage at 23.1 per cent of all retail sales, JP Morgan14  reports that eCommerce in 2019 made up just 8.9 per cent of all sales in the USA. This is expected to increase to 14.5 per cent by end 2020.15

With a greater need for social distancing in 2020 and 2021, USA saw record sales growths for eCommerce in recent times. eMarketer reported that eCommerce sales grew by more than a third (32.4%) from 2019 to 2020. That’s from US$ 598 billion in 2019 to US$ 792 billion in 2020. DigitalCommerce36016 reported that ‘More than $1 in every $5 was spent online in Q2 2020 - the highest eCommerce penetration of any quarter or year on record.

When it comes to the product categories that US shoppers buy, We Are Social and Hootsuite’s Digital 2021 USA shows the following:17

In 2020, American online shoppers spent the most on fashion and beauty, followed by electronics and physical media and toys, DIY and hobby items. Furniture and appliances and food and personal care are 4th and 5th respectively but have seen the most growth following the end of the lockdowns that began in late Q1 2020.

eMarketer also estimated that fashion, personal care and beauty products, as well as food and beverages could grow sharply in 2021. This is mainly attributed to an expected pent-up demand for clothing as the pandemic subsides as well as adoption of digital grocery platforms.18 This was briefly seen in the first half of 2021, which is explored in the next section.

Apart from this market’s growth potential, the USA also has a generous de minimis rate of USD 800, which is good news for merchants in Southeast Asia looking to sell cross-border into the USA. The de minimis rate means that items with a customs valuation below it will not be charged additional import taxes and customs duties. That potentially means larger duty-free orders from a single transaction from your store.

Janio Asia has customs clearance expertise for shipments into and throughout Southeast Asia - Looking to minimise customs-related headaches for shipments into countries like Indonesia? Talk to us below to find out more!

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All of this points towards opportunity in America, but what are some of the key trends that eCommerce merchants, particularly those in Southeast Asia, need to be aware of when trying to break into America’s massive eCommerce opportunity?

COVID-19 accelerates eCommerce Adoption beyond the Pandemic

The greater need for safe distancing and online shopping in some cases being the only way to purchase items during “shelter-at-home” restrictions helped to drive eCommerce’s growth in 2020 and beyond.

eMarketer’s data estimates that online’s share of total retail sales grew from 11.0 per cent in 2019 to 14.0 per cent in 2020 before growing to 15.3 per cent in 2021.19 US consumers are estimated to spend USD 933.30 billion online in 2021 - growing by 17.9 per cent from last year.

Digital Commerce 360 offers slightly different numbers, but a similar trajectory. Their analysis posits that eCommerce’s share of total retail sales in USA are:20

  • 2019
  • Online sales US$ 598 billion
  • Total retail sales US$ 3,780 billion
  • 2020
  • Online sales US$ 861 billion
  • Total retail sales US$ 4040 billion

Digital Commerce 360 reported that the jump in total retail sales in 2020 from 2019 was almost entirely driven by online sales - which accounted for 101% of all gains in 2020. Surprisingly, while Amazon was still the leading eCommerce retailer in terms of sales its overall share of sales declined. It ended up conceding market share to Walmart, Best Buy, Target and Kroger.21

Digital Commerce 360 analysed data from the U.S. Department of Commerce data and their approach and data sources could explain its differences with eMarketer.

This growth could be attributed to Americans purchasing essential items online as well as people continuing to purchase online even when restrictions were eased or lifted, as shown in Deloitte's chart for 2020. A report by Mckinsey showed that 70-80% of consumers intend to continue their digital behaviours even beyond the pandemic.22

In the USA, most lockdowns ended near the end of Q2 2020. Additionally, many traditional retailers in the key segments of Food and Drink as well as Health and Beauty, transitioning to online platforms.

These increases were also partly driven by first-time shoppers buying online this year. ClearSale,23 an eCommerce fraud protection company, reported that across the US, Canada, Australia, Mexico and Argentina - countries that all had some form of lockdown - that the average number of brand-new online shoppers rose by 12 per cent between March and April 2020.

To keep an eye out for trending products on marketplaces like Amazon, you can use Google Trends or more specific search engines like Jungle Scout, Sonar or Ahrefs which have the capability to discover search trends on sites like Amazon or eBay. Another important tip is to look out for seasonal changes, especially for the fashion category.24

Shoppers show signs of pent up demand, but Delta fears and drying stimulus cause some concern

Q2 2021 saw an optimistic outlook towards economic recovery and a general reopening of the economy. Buoyed by higher vaccination rates and stimulus payments in March 2021, consumers spent more in Q2 2021, reaching 4 to 7 per cent higher than pre-COVID-19 levels McKinsey reported.25

During this period, categories that were hard hit such as fashion and apparel started seeing recovering sales. McKinsey also estimates that younger and more affluent shoppers are likely to want to splurge in an August 2021 report.

However, this spending recovery may hit a snag.

In July 2021, retail sales were down by 1.1 per cent month-on-month.26 Reuters reported: "While the resurgence of COVID-19 and inflation concerns have dampened confidence, it is too soon to conclude this decline will result in consumers significantly curtailing their spending in the months ahead," said Lynn Franco, senior director of economic indicators at the Conference Board in Washington.27

While there seem to be plenty of mixed signals here, online merchants in Southeast Asia may want to continue monitoring the situation and still prepare for the upcoming Black Friday, Cyber Monday and Christmas periods - which represent USA’s peak shopping periods.

Younger shoppers lead the way in eCommerce purchases and buy based on purpose-alignment and value for money

McKinsey reported that Gen Z shoppers and high-income earners are starting to spend on nonessential categories such as apparel and footwear again.28 High-income millennials were the group who indicated they were most likely to splurge or treat themselves in 2021 in a different McKinsey study at 82 per cent of the respondent group.29

US consumers’ loyalty to products and brands has also been impacted by these recent changes. 30 to 40 per cent of consumers have been switching brands or retailers, driven “mostly by younger consumers seeking value, combined with greater emphasis on purpose-driven alignment and quality”, said McKinsey.30

On the other hand, the majority of US consumers are likely to focus more of their spending on mainly essential products. Around 40 per cent of US consumers have reduced their general spending and are looking to cut back mostly on nonessential purchases.31 This means that the majority of US shoppers will likely be focusing on just groceries and household supplies.

What this means for Southeast Asian merchants is that you’d want to target affluent Gen Z’s and Millennials in the USA. If you can position your brand as one that caters to doing the right thing (sustainability, treating employees well) while providing the right value for money at the right quality, you’ll be able to build a brand following in the USA. We’ll also be exploring more about USA consumer-specific insights in our next article.

One-third of US shoppers purchase cross-border and many United States shoppers trust global or local brands

More than one-third of all eCommerce purchases in the USA were cross border in 2020. According to Practical Ecommerce’s analysis, US$ 270 billion out of US$ 795 billion eCommerce purchases were cross border.32

The two most popular markets they purchase overseas from are China and the UK.33 Most shoppers in America are loyal to more global or local brands such as Amazon, eBay and the like, but those who look beyond America’s borders are driven by different concerns.

McKinsey noted that US consumers tended to switch brands based on value-for-money, whether the brand behind the product aligns with their values and beliefs as well as product quality.34

This is supported by research from Ipsos and Paypal’s Cross-Border Consumer Research 2018.35 They found that the main drivers of shopping cross-border are better prices, access to items not available in their country, and discovering newer and more interesting products. However, it should be noted that these figures are from a global survey.

Research on US Cross-border eCommerce by Beroe in 2018 helps further add a US perspective Ipsos and Paypal’s findings.36 They credit cheaper prices and greater product choice as key drivers for Americans to shop overseas. These cheaper prices are also aided by USA’s fairly high de minimis rate (USD 800) too. Both Beroe and Paypal’s research show that clothing and apparel is the most popular item being bought cross-border.

When it comes to prices, Beroe looks at the price level index, the price level of a country relative to another. What this means is that for a country with strong spending power, products overseas could appear cheaper after factoring in things like currency conversion - which helps explain why China is one of the more popular cross-border eCommerce markets for Americans.

What this means for Southeast Asian eCommerce merchants is that you’ll need to balance providing your USA shoppers with an experience they know they can trust while providing them with competitively priced products they can’t find locally - such as clothing and apparel manufactured in Indonesia, one of the world’s leading clothing manufacturers.

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Putting it All Together:

The USA’s eCommerce market is second in the world and recent events have accelerated Americans’ adoption of eCommerce, especially among many first time buyers. Americans tend to prefer local or global brands and want reassurance that they are getting a great eCommerce experience: good prices, a quick and convenient shopping experience while knowing that the transaction won’t be fraudulent.

Good prices can be helped by America’s strong purchasing power and high de minimis rate. After currency conversion, Americans could have a sizeable basket of goods from your store and still not incur additional customs duties and taxes. You can also find out upcoming trends on popular sites like Amazon using site search engines like the ones listed above.

Trust is a big factor when winning over American shoppers. Most cross-border purchases happen on desktop, so having a branded store built on popular eCommerce platforms like Shopify is important. Equally important is highlighting the steps you’re taking to combat fraud to help win them over.

American shoppers’ trust for global or local brands also points towards having a presence on major marketplaces like Amazon - which account for almost half of all eCommerce transactions in the USA. Growing your collection of 5-star reviews will go a long way in gaining their trust - and this can only be done by making sure the products you sell them reach their doorsteps safe and sound.

Apart from ensuring sufficient stock and sales deals during Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you’ll need a trustworthy partner who can help you deliver your USA-bound sales on time and target like Janio Asia. With our flexible, end-to-end eCommerce logistics expertise, we can tailor unique logistics solutions for your business’s unique logistics needs. To request a quote or find out more about our services, reach out to us via the banner below:

Air or Sea, our flexible shipping solutions take your United States deliveries forward. Get your quote here!


  1. Gross Domestic Product, 4th Quarter and Year 2020 (Advance Estimate) | US Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA).
  2. USA Today - COVID lockdown: Which states have restrictions in place in 2021?
  3. TechCrunch - COVID-19 pandemic accelerated shift to e-commerce by 5 years, new report says
  4. CNBC - Retail sales in March 2021 explode as consumers use stimulus checks
  5. Wall Street Journal - Higher June Retail Sales Bolsters U.S. Recovery
  6. CNBC - Retail sales July 2021 worse-than-expected 1.1% in July as rising Covid fears hit consumers
  7. Reuters - U.S. will not lock down despite surge driven by Delta variant, Fauci says
  8. Brookings - The decline and recovery of consumer spending in the US
  9. JP Morgan: E-commerce payments trends: United States
  10. Digital Commerce 360 - US ecommerce grows 44.0% in 2020
  11. Practical eCommerce - Charts: 2020 Cross-border Ecommerce Purchases by Country
  12. Oberlo - US Ecommerce Sales [Updated Aug 2021]
  13. Digital in the United States: All the Statistics You Need in 2021 — DataReportal – Global Digital Insights
  14. JP Morgan: E-commerce payments trends: United States
  15. eMarketer - US Ecommerce Forecast 2021 - Insider Intelligence Trends, Forecasts & Statistics
  16. Digital Commerce 360: US ecommerce sales climb 39% in Q1 2021
  17. Digital in the United States: All the Statistics You Need in 2021 — DataReportal – Global Digital Insights
  18. eMarketer: US Ecommerce by Category 2021 - Insider Intelligence Trends, Forecasts & Statistics
  19. eMarketer: US Ecommerce by Category 2021 - Insider Intelligence Trends, Forecasts & Statistics
  20. Digital Commerce 360 - US ecommerce grows 44.0% in 2020
  21. Ibid
  22. McKinsey: Consumer sentiment in the US during the coronavirus crisis
  23. ClearSale: International E-Commerce Data Shows Surge in First-Time Online Shoppers
  24. CED Commerce: Here's a complete List of eBay Top-selling items in 2021
  25. McKinsey - Consumer sentiment in the US during the coronavirus crisis
  26. CNBC - Retail sales July 2021 worse-than-expected 1.1% in July as rising Covid fears hit consumers
  27. Reuters - Surging COVID-19 cases dampen U.S. consumer confidence, house prices post record gains
  28. McKinsey - The great consumer shift: Ten charts that show how US shopping behavior is changing
  29. McKinsey - Consumer sentiment in the US during the coronavirus crisis
  30. Ibid
  31. McKinsey - The great consumer shift: Ten charts that show how US shopping behavior is changing
  32. Practical eCommerce - Charts: 2020 Cross-border Ecommerce Purchases by Country
  33. Ibid
  34. McKinsey - Consumer sentiment in the US during the coronavirus crisis
  35. PayPal Cross-Border Consumer Research 2018
  36. Beroe: North America Cross-border E-commerce Market Report And Outlook
  37. Statista: Mobile device share of e-commerce in US
  38. We Are Social and Hootsuite: Digital 2021 US
  39. ClearSale: Survey: U.S. shoppers will trade privacy (but not convenience) for better e-commerce fraud protection