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It's official: "Clicks" have topped "bricks"

  • For the first time, U.S. online sales have surpassed consumer spending in physical stores.
  • Ecommerce sales in February accounted for nearly 12 percent of total retail sales.
  • China's digital spending is more than twice as much as that in the U.S.

U.S. Census data out this week show that, for the first time, Americans are buying more things over the internet than they did in stores. In February, online sales accounted for 11.812 percent of the $506 billion spent on retail purchases, according to the agency. That barely topped the 11.806 percent of sales that happened in department stores, warehouse clubs and big-box chains.

By comparison, online sales made up roughly 5 percent of total retail spending in the late 1990s, as ecommerce was starting to take off. And while physical stores aren't about to go extinct, the ecommerce genie also isn't about to go back in the bottle. 

Major milestone

Paul Hickey, co-founder of Bespoke Investment Group, said he expects the trend toward ecommerce to continue apace. In 2018, online sales in the U.S. jumped 14 percent from the previous year, according to government data. 

"The days of the internet and online shopping being 'just a fad' have come a long way over the years, but February's retail sales report... highlighted another of many major milestones that the growth of online shopping has reached over the years," the investment firm said in a research brief.

While ecommerce is thriving in the U.S., it's doing even better in China. The People's Republic -- which accounts for more than half of all digital sales worldwide -- is forecast to reach $2 trillion in online spending this year, compared with an estimated $600 billion in the U.S., according to eMarketer.