Recently, in a discussion with Alison Angus, head of Euromonitor’s lifestyle research, the Wall Street Journal identified some key trends that, having received a huge boost during the COVID-19 pandemic, will probably linger with us afterward:
Euromonitor earlier this year noted that consumers were buying more AI-enabled home appliances and virtual assistants, like Amazon.com Inc.’s Alexa. But now, such devices have a new draw, says Ms. Angus. “Voice-control technology limits the need to touch surfaces so much, so that’s why they are appealing,” she says.Ellen Byron, “Home as Refuge, Fewer Reusables, Less Privacy: The Consumer Trends Emerging From Coronavirus Lockdowns ” at Wall Street Journal (April 27, 2020)
Robotic, no-contact delivery is also catching on. Meanwhile, recycling has taken an unpredicted hit:
“Clean comes before green,” she says. Recovery of this trend will take time, but it will come back, Euromonitor predicts, adding that sustainability still ranks high on consumers’ agendas. Companies will need to educate consumers about the safety of reusable products and clearly instruct them on how to clean them, Ms. Angus says.Ellen Byron, “Home as Refuge, Fewer Reusables, Less Privacy: The Consumer Trends Emerging From Coronavirus Lockdowns ” at Wall Street Journal (April 27, 2020)
Privacy concerns, of course, have also given way before safety concerns. But even if consumers must be persuaded to care about recycling once more, they will probably soon want their privacy back.
Here are some predictions from other sources:
What’s already big will get bigger
According to a report at Statista, Amazon had 112 million Prime members in the United States in 2019, up from 95 million in 2018. They spent an average of $1,400, about 230% more than non-Prime members.
Now, throw in the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide commitment to social distancing over the next few weeks. It’s the perfect storm for the rest of retail.Jon Markman, “Coronavirus Quarantine Could Change Consumer Habits … For Good” at Forbes (March 28, 2020)
Markman doubts that Amazon’s recent move to stock only essential items at its warehouses during the pandemic will hurt the firm much because it was still stocking and delivering sought-after essentials like staple household goods and medical supplies to consumers sheltering in place, a classic captive market.
Costco, he says, had lost a bit recently (stock down 3.2% this year) though its shares held up “better than most.” But, as shoppers started stocking up ahead of pandemic lockdowns, the bulk buying opportunities generated long lineups (good free publicity!).
Both Amazon and Costco benefit from offering attractive discounts to loyal members, he notes. The big business model, tested by the pandemic, seemed to work, while many smaller retailers have cut back or shut down to ride out the storm.
The pandemic lockdowns may also have changed shopping habits in another way: Consumers who had previously avoided online shopping or memberships may have been motivated to give them a try. If it works out better for them than they expected, they will probably continue. Which accelerates the trend toward a small number of colossal companies.
Young people are making hard-headed decisions, going forward
The largest cohort of consumers is now Gen Z (or iGen), people born roughly between 1996 and 2020 who have been “raised on the internet and social media” (Business Insider). Gen Z, while suffering anxiety and depression, has seen the crisis as an opportunity to plan for the future according to a recent survey by Amplify Solutions, which specializes in the youth market:
However, what’s especially notable is that 76% of survey respondents indicated that they’re using this time for personal or professional development.
Gen Z has always been future-focused. Many of them were raised through the last recession and understand the importance of being competitive in the job market. This crisis has only exacerbated these concerns. With so much time on their hands, Gen Z is seeking out ways to develop practical new skills that will make them more attractive to future employers. This will be a huge opportunity for traditional e-learning companies and new players in online courses.Nick Gardner, “Covid-19 Is Changing Gen Z Consumer Habits. Here Are 5 Things Marketers Need to Know” at AdWeek
We might start reading more about falling enrolments in degree courses that rack up huge debt for minimal employment chances.
Worldwide, consumers are scaling back travel plans
Consumers globally do not intend to undertake international travel soon, while consumers in several countries—with the exception of Germany and France—plan to restrict domestic travel as well. Most consumers expect to shop less frequently in physical stores for items other than grocery, simultaneously shifting that spending online.Shruti Bhargava et al., “A global view of how consumer behavior is changing amid COVID-19 ” at McKinsey (April 2020)
Not long ago, travelers worried mainly about endemic diseases, misfortunes, and inconveniences and took precautions accordingly. But COVID-19 appeared without warning And it created chaos, cancellations, strandings, lockdowns abroad, and other miseries for masses of average travelers, not just for the foolhardy few who ignore warnings. Look for more people to vacation close to home as well as shop online, at least for the next few years. Look for many airlines and tourism destinations to suffer as well.
On a more hopeful note so far as the economy is concerned, as Mark P. Mills points out at City Journal, the mass unemployment of people who cannot work remotely today will likely drive new technological developments that make it possible to do so during a future lockdown:
Teleconferencing is only marginally useful for many critical industries and infrastructures. We still need to run machines, deliver food, and distribute medical supplies. Robots can do some of that, but the reality is that tele-operation and tele-medicine are far easier—and less expensive—than full automation. But for hands-on tasks, remote-controlled systems require not only hyperreal virtual vision but also tactile feedback. The latter is possible with the technology of haptics, which is undergoing a quiet revolution.
Remotely operating a robotic hand is far more effective if one is wearing a (comfortable) glove that lets you feel what the robot is touching. Such technologies have evolved more from advances in materials sciences than from communications tech per se. Engineers now talk in terms of the “tactile Internet.” Early uses for such technologies have always targeted places considered dangerous for humans; in a pandemic, that means everywhere.Mark P. Mills, “Silicon vs. Viruses: Thoughts on fighting the next epidemic” at City Journal
These types of advances have been pioneered to help people suffering from paralysis. (See “Through AI, a paralyzed man has regained the sense of touch”). The recent paralysis of the economy provides an incentive to further their development and generalize their use.
Further reading on post-COVID-19 changes:
Five ways COVID-19 is changing education for good: Parents, students, and teachers worldwide have been finding ways to use the internet in creative ways they would never have considered before. Recently, a Harvard prof chose to launch an attack on homeschoolers, portraying them as driven by narrow religious concerns. Given how many parents COVID-19 has forced to homeschool, the attack was, at best, poorly timed. But it usefully focused attention on the ways education needs to change in an online world.
Post-COVID, five ways your job could change. This is a good time to be a creative thinker and innovator. Many COVID-driven innovations will likely endure, whether it’s vets doing telehealth, trolls harassing Zoom users, or cybercriminals targeting remote workers, the new opportunities and risks will stay with us.
Five possibly unexpected ways the post-COVID office will change. We’ll all know more about working at home than we ever thought we would.