Is It Right To Shop Online For Non-Essential Items In The Lockdown?

Is it safe to handle deliveries? Are you putting drivers at risk? And will it help the economy? We asked the experts.

Physical shops may have closed, but online retailers are encouraging us to spend, spend, spend – and it’s definitely tempting.

We all want to do our bit to help businesses during the pandemic, and splashing out on cushions to brighten up the place is all the more appealing. Plus, if ever there was a need for that retail therapy dopamine hit, it’s now.

But is buying non-essential items like clothing and homeware a good idea in the midst of a pandemic? Or are you putting yourself – and the people who work for these businesses – at risk?

Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images

First thing’s first: is it safe to handle deliveries?

The virus can live on surfaces, but a study suggests it disintegrates quickly on cardboard, unlike plastic or steel. So deliveries in cardboard boxes are unlikely to spread the disease.

To limit any transmission risk between you and the delivery driver, request a “no contact” delivery where possible, meaning you won’t have direct interaction with them – this is as much for their benefit as yours. They’ll leave your package on your doorstep and you won’t need to sign for it.

To be extra careful, throw away the outside box as soon as you’ve opened your goods, as this has passed between the most hands in the outside world. Then, wipe down any surfaces the package has touched, wipe down the product itself if possible, and remember to wash your hands.

So we can handle deliveries, but is online shopping ethical right now?

This is a tough question to answer, says Ann Gallagher, professor of Ethics and Care at the University of Surrey, and it ultimately comes down to weighing up the pros and cons of your individual situation and purchase purpose.

The demand for online deliveries may place strain on product buyers, makers and delivery drivers, for example, by exposing them to more people – therefore giving them a higher risk of contracting the virus. However, it’s also paying their wages, and many online retailers have introduced measures to limit the risk for employees, such as the “no contact” deliveries.

A key question to ask yourself is: “What counts as ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ items right now?”

Remember, the benefits of a purchase might not only be in relation to our health, suggests Gallagher. “Families who can’t be close to each other may wish to express their love by sending flowers or other non-essential items contributing to people not feeling neglected or abandoned.”

So, thinking about the intention behind your decision to shop could help you land on an ethical viewpoint, she says. The gift you bought for your grandmother in isolation, vs. another designer handbag from a less reputable provider – which one stands out as more ethical to you?

If you’re still wracking your brains, Gallagher says it’s a good idea to consider who you’re purchasing from and how they’re operating – but ultimately, there’s no set answer.

Will it help the economy?

In short, yes. Ratula Chakraborty, professor of Business Management at the University of East Anglia says online shopping could boost the economy and your morale.

“It’s important for such economic activity to continue while it’s safe to do so,” she says. “This isn’t just for the sake of the economy, but for the spirits and wellbeing of households who will continue to have needs to make purchases.”

Online shopping is also the only way many small businesses can continue to operate. Rachel Gilbertson, from Liverpool, owns a home decor and gift business specialising in homemade cushions. She also sells through a local newsagents, which is another essential shop.

Roxiie's Treasures, owned by Rachel Gilbertson.
Roxiie's Treasures
Roxiie's Treasures, owned by Rachel Gilbertson.

Rachel is asking customers to continue to support her business online while the post office is still open as usual. “If people stop doing this, I’ll have to look at the possibility of getting benefits or getting another job,” she says.

Annie Barker, who runs a modern sewing, knitting and craft shop in London, says two-thirds of her sales usually occur in-store. Her shop will be in danger of closing if those sales don’t move to online.

“If we get enough sales, we will always be okay – we’ll be able to pay our rent and our staff won’t have to worry about having a job at the end of this,” she says.

The Village Haberdashery, owned by Annie Barker.
The Village Haberdashery
The Village Haberdashery, owned by Annie Barker.

Like many small business owners, both Barker and Gilbertson say they implemented new protocols to reduce transmission risk last year, including sanitising all surfaces and tools, staff frequently washing their hands, and wiping down all deliveries with anti-bac.

Chakraborty says in the face of such severe lockdowns, the freedom and pleasure from buying goods online might go some way to counter the feeling of being prisoners in our own homes, and cut-off from the commercial world we know – and probably miss.