But there's more than just one factor behind a lot of the sales jumps that are being seen.
Certainly, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on bricks-and-mortar retail activity -- both due to stores being closed and consumers being reluctant to go even when they can -- is a huge factor. But for retailers such as Target (TGT) , Best Buy (BBY) and Wayfair (W) , as well as marketplace and software/service providers such as eBay (EBAY) and Shopify (SHOP) , the fact that their biggest online rival (namely, Amazon.com (AMZN) ) is seeing more orders than it can handle also looms large.
With Amazon prioritizing the delivery of groceries and other "essential" goods, delivery times for many "non-essential" items, such as electronics, sporting goods and home furnishings, have jumped to 2-to-4 weeks. That in turn has led many loyal Amazon customers looking to buy such items to explore other options.
Stimulus checks also appear to have given a lift to e-commerce activity. On Monday, research firm NPD reported that U.S. tech and consumer electronics sales were up 29% week-over-week (and 23% annually) during the week ending April 18 -- right around the time that stimulus payments began appearing in bank accounts.
Sales rose sharply not just for PCs (up 53% annually), monitors (up 73%) and other items needed to support remote work and learning activities, but also for discretionary consumer electronics purchases such as TVs (up 86%), Blu-ray players (up 27%) and sound bars (up 69%). While NPD's numbers cover both online and physical retail sales, it's a safe bet that a large portion of the aforementioned purchases happened online.
One other obvious, but under-discussed, reason why e-commerce orders are soaring: Consumer spending on things such as dining out, entertainment, travel and gas has fallen off a cliff. That naturally leaves those consumers who still have jobs with a lot more discretionary income to spend on products such as electronics and furniture, if they wish.
To varying degrees, all of the factors that have led e-commerce sales to jump in March and April appear set to diminish in the coming weeks and months.
As lockdowns gradually ease, a portion of the retail spending that has recently shifted to online channels will return to physical retail channels, and some of the discretionary spending that has shifted to goods from things such as dining and travel will shift back as well.
Meanwhile, with Amazon in the process of hiring 175,000 people to help deal with its order surge, its delivery times for non-essential goods should gradually normalize. Anecdotally, there are already some signs of improving delivery times for non-essential products.
And though Congress and the White House are weighing a new stimulus bill that could feature a payroll tax holiday, one can't assume that debt-financed stimulus payments are going to keep propping up online TV and furniture sales forever.
Finally, as the economic impact of the current downturn keeps making itself felt, high unemployment and lower consumer confidence are likely to have an impact on both online and offline retail sales.
But with all that said, there's a good chance that e-commerce's share of total U.S. retail activity, which was previously just 16% even after backing out auto, fuel and restaurant/bar transactions, will remain above February levels for the foreseeable future.
Even once shuttered retail stores begin reopening, many consumers will likely err on the side of caution for a while and do much of their shopping online. Likewise, it will probably be a while before discretionary spending on dining, entertainment and travel returns to pre-COVID-19 levels.
One also can't ignore the fact that U.S. e-commerce sales were growing about 15% annually heading into 2020, and that COVID-19 has accelerated what was already a long-term, secular trend. This might particularly hold for online grocery orders, as consumers experiencing the convenience of grocery pickup and delivery services for the first time choose to keep relying on these services.
For these reasons, the online sales of many retailers in, say, September and October might be well below April levels, but still meaningfully above January and February levels.