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Winter storms encourage snuggling up inside, but not much online shopping

Aaron Pressman

The huge snowstorm barreling up the Eastern seaboard has already had at least one impact on online behavior. Bunches of lonely singles have started posting looking for companionship.

“I'm seeking a single 20- or 30-something female who shares my excitement for snow days and wants to create the semi-romantic, mildly productive yet equally fun adult version,” wrote one such poster, as captured by Business Insider.

But on a more serious note, wintry weather has been credited with boosting ecommerce over shopping in the real world, as consumers stay home and click through the virtual aisles instead of braving the cold and hitting the mall.

That was the storyline back in 2010, after ecommerce sales got a surprisingly big boost amid a late-December storm. But analysts who have since looked at a wider set of data say storms aren’t a major factor driving ecommerce behavior.

“This story crops up now almost every year when we have winter weather coming up and the effects get overstated,” says Andrew Lipsman, vice president at comScore.

People do spend a lot more time online during bad weather incidents, but they’re doing more window shopping than actual shopping, he says.

During last winter’s polar vortex, online ad impressions jumped 27% and clicks on ads rose 4% from the same period the year before, according to a study by PMDigital. But conversion rates dropped 8%, the number of orders fell 8% and total online sales were down 6%, the study found.

“People retreated into their homes, working and staying inside to avoid inconvenience and danger,” the marketing consulting firm concluded. “They entered what could be called a modern “survival” state of mind and non-essential shopping faltered.”

If there are any gains from the bad weather, on-demand delivery services could benefit, Lipsman hypothesizes. His family tried grocery delivery service Instacart for the first time during a patch of bad winter weather last year and got hooked on the convenience.

Instacart, which raised venture capital at level valuing the company at $2 billion this month, competes with other startups like FreshDirect as well as Amazon’s (AMZN) AmazonFresh grocery delivery service. The company is "always busier" during bad weather, an Instacart spokeswoman says. And alcohol delivery service Drizly said orders in Boston and New York were 477% higher than on a typical Monday.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these companies get a bump,” he says. “You just need to get a consumer started for the first time and that can really change their habits over the long term.”