(Rachel Orr/The Washington Post; Images from iStock)

The rise of online shopping has played out differently in various retail categories: It arrived like a thunderclap in the books and electronics businesses, quickly scrambling how we shop for those items. But in sectors like grocery, e-commerce has done relatively little over the last two decades to disrupt our longstanding brick-and-mortar shopping routines.

In a new report from the online metrics firm ComScore, researchers aimed to capture the ways our online shopping habits did (and did not) change in 2015, and the results contain some surprises.

ComScore analyzed which shopping categories drew the biggest online sales in 2015. Computer hardware — a category that includes personal computers and tablets — has been the leader for at least a decade. But last year, for the first time, spending on apparel and accessories took the e-commerce crown. In three of out of four quarters in 2015, apparel and accessories pulled down the most dollars. For the year, clothing generated $51.5 billion in online sales, slightly edging out $51.1 billion spent on personal computers and tablets.


In some ways, this might seem logical: Tablets sales growth has slowed overall as shoppers instead opt for smartphones with bigger screens. But recall, too, that 2015 wasn’t exactly a banner year for the apparel industry: Retailers from Macy’s to Gap reported gloomy sales results as shoppers chose to spend their money on things like travel and dining out.

So the fact that online clothing sales surpassed computer hardware sales is likely telling us something bigger about customers’ online shopping patterns. For starters, it probably reflects retailers’ efforts to make it feel less risky to shop for clothes online.

Return policies got much better a few years ago, and that has lowered the friction to people buying in the apparel category,” said Andrew Lipsman, ComScore’s vice president of marketing and insights. 

In other words, people are getting more used to the idea that if a pair of jeans doesn’t fit them quite as expected, or a sweater is not quite the same color blue it looked to be on a website, it can be returned with little hassle and often at no cost.

Apparel also is among the categories that is seeing particular benefit from the explosive growth in shopping on smartphones. Lipsman said that many of the categories that registered particularly strong increases in online spending last year were ones in which the purchases are not “highly considered,” meaning that customers don’t spend much time researching before buying.

These purchases are especially conducive to being made on a small screen, and so with the lion’s share of online shopping growth coming from mobile devices, they are getting a particular tailwind from this change in shopping habits.

Meanwhile, consumers are still likely to do plenty of homework before making an expensive purchase such as a laptop. They might read customer reviews, compare features such as a memory and processing speed, and price-check across several different retailers. And so consumers are often still choosing to buy this kind of item from their desktop computer.

Here’s a breakdown of which retailing categories had the biggest and smallest sales growth last year. As you can see, apparel is above the average, as are low consideration categories such as sports and fitness or toys.

Lipsman said some of the smaller categories in the study can be especially volatile from year to year, including video games and consoles, which recorded an eye-popping 44 percent increase in dollars in 2015. Lipsman said sales for the gear can often swing wildly depending on when new titles and consoles are released.

In the categories with below-average growth, there were different stories behind each of the numbers. In some cases, such as with books and consumer electronics, growth is naturally going to be slower because buying these things online is already a well-established behavior. In the case of consumer packaged goods, it would seem the relatively small 8 percent increase likely reflects our reluctance to switch to buying groceries online.

While it’s already retail industry gospel that mobile devices will be a cornerstone of the future of e-commerce, ComScore’s findings underscored just how essential smartphones are becoming to shopping.

In the 2014 holiday shopping season, there was a fairly big jump, with mobile accounting for 13 percent of all online sales, compared to 11 percent the previous quarter. Adam Lella, ComScore’s senior marketing insights analyst, says that’s fairly typical.


Usually we see those inflection points during periods of high activity. That’s when people will try out these new behaviors,” Lella said.

In the previous two years, mobile as a share of total commerce had dipped back after the holiday shopping crunch. But in 2015, mobile only continued to take a bigger share of online shopping, accounting for 16.9 percent of total dollars by the end of 2015.

While mobile is a relatively small share of online shopping overall, accounting for just $15.6 billion of the $92.5 billion spent online in the fourth quarter, ComScore researchers believe the new numbers suggest we’ve hit a tipping point for adoption.