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Shopping in 2020: What we bought during the pandemic

Air purifiers, exercise bikes, monitors, ergonomic chairs, face masks: Elevating home living overwhelmed Shopping trends this year.
Illustration of NBC bestseller 2020 products. An air purifier by Dyson, a happy dog, the book the Promise Land by Barack Obama, an iPad Pro, a girl running with a mask, LivSo shampoo and an Echelon stationary bike.
Here are the most purchased products we covered in 2020.Courtesy Dyson; Amazon; Getty; Apple; Courtesy Echelon; Courtesy LivSo

Soon after we published a January shopping guide on UV light sanitizers — then fairly novel to mainstream shoppers — viewership suddenly exploded.

We ran the Jan. 22 expert guide for several reasons but the depth of winter provided our main inspiration: It forced many of us indoors and around others which, in turn, exposed us to lots of potentially harmful particles and bacteria. UV light sanitizers promised to help eliminate these. A nice-to-have device for sure, it was hard to predict just how sought after UV light sanitizers would become in the coming weeks, months and now possibly years. In that upward trajectory, we’d witnessed one of our first indicators that Covid would significantly upend online shopping behaviors.

Now, wrapping up a year most of us are glad to consider the past, we’ve all largely grown accustomed to so much we previously would have found jarring — both within the shopping realm and outside of it. At first, this meant that shifting priorities were often unclear. We at Shopping were tracking search trends, noting shopping spikes and otherwise keeping our ears to the ground to ensure we were serving up shopping guidance and recommendations that mattered to you and that mattered to us. Covid — substantial, steady, spreading — exerted its influence on what we bought in 2020 in ways we’re still learning to understand.

In the last few weeks, we’ve shared with you some of the most purchased items we covered across genres and price points. It’s not a complete picture of what mattered most to all readers. Instead, it’s a glimpse of popular interest and intrigue, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, all around the point of sale online, to which much of the country’s sellers and buyers turned given the quarantined culture of 2020.

Protecting ourselves, protecting others

Air purifiers exploded in popularity, the air we breathe always a priority but now something more, something many felt implored to keep especially clean. From bestselling to affordable purifiers, we shared the best options on the market, whether traditional or breakthrough air cleaners from brands like Dyson, Molekule and PhoneSoap.

Face masks, their very names far from frequent, took on a cultural (and political) significance that will resonate far into 2021, if not beyond. Lots of brands released face masks, prompting us to share most purchased lists earlier in the year. Aside from that, we tended toward guidance that answered what many wondered: How to buy face masks for kids? Do antimicrobial face masks make sense? How to determine a face mask’s style, which face mask is best for exercising and what’s the deal with face shields?

Weighted blankets have maintained their rising stardom for years, reaching new heights during the pandemic. Given a global stressor like Covid, it's no surprise we saw eco-friendly weighted blanket styles and even weighted comforters, some top-rated and investment-worthy and some practical, colorful and affordable.

Skin care, ancient in drawing our attention, likewise gained some newfound traction this year. Non-Covid skin care interests run the gamut from wrestling with teen acne to treating dry heels. Pandemic skin care topics abounded, from handling so-called maskne and understanding pore strips to figuring out long-lasting lipstick and makeup that would withstand the friction of a face mask, as well as whether we had to consider sunscreen indoors.

Staying at home and working (out) there

Exercise bikes, or stationary bikes, were nothing new to market. In fact, they saw a rise in popularity organically and long before Covid crept into our vocabularies. But a newfound sense of home given quarantines and general isolation pushed them increasingly into mainstream consideration. To that end, we've looked into affordable bikes in a rather high-priced space, bestsellers across the board and myriad alternatives, including under-desk cycles, ellipticals and treadmills — all part of the at-home gyms ecosystem.

Tech, the catchall ranging from chargers and gaming consoles to smartphones and laptops is never far from dominant when it comes to online shopping. This year, it claimed an even shinier throne given the pivot to working from home for many across the planet. A regular focus for us now and into 2021, we've served up your best tech options for Wi-Fi routers and extenders, monitors (and laptop stands), keyboards, mice, webcams and microphones, to name a few. We also turned to adjacent, non-tech recommendations that complemented work from home, from ergonomic chairs to indoor plants.

Audio devices took on a life of their own within the aforementioned work from home reality. From the normalization of Zoom calls to attempting focus, we found inspiration to ensure we heard better, sounded better and could cut out surrounding noise (this last one resonating outside of audio noise). We turned our attention to audio recommendations ranging from earbuds to noise canceling headphones, exercise earbuds, soundbars and bookshelf speakers, to name a few.

Books, another ancient human interest, perhaps got re-energized during a year whose spring season surfaced against lockdown orders. That aside and more specifically: Social upheaval aligned with some book shopping trends, elevating Black authors and topics as well as inclusionary themes. Former President Barack Obama's memoir broke the charts when it came out. And historically iconic authors fell out of favor. Otherwise, we kept an eye on some of the year's best books according to the NAACP, Lambda Literary, Goodreads users, Amazon Books editors and the National Book Foundation, alongside the rest of our literary coverage.

Pets gave many an especially necessary helping hand this year, their company a respite to the void quarantine created. While pets were likely glad for the extra attention they got, Shopping readers pampered them with elevated products, both edible and not. We turned our attention to dogs especially, looking into the best dog food, dog treats, dog beds and dog harnesses, among many more recommendations — yes, we covered cats, too, and will continue to do so in the new year.

Across the board, stores have eased access to online shopping, prioritizing it in many ways and focusing especially on incentivizing shoppers toward it. The coming year will perhaps see these trends push ever farther. Regardless, we’ll be here to help you navigate all that online shopping can do for you — and note its limitations — to help you responsibly shop and get exactly what you’re looking for, and help you get it at the best possible price.

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