This Was Your Future

By Delany Higgins

Those living under COVID-19 social distancing measures have experienced a shock to their everyday lives. Restricted to limited time spent outside, struggling with rapid conversions to working or learning from home, and at the mercy of wifi strength, households have adjusted to a new – and, most hope, temporary – normal.

But many of these lifestyle changes were already taking over.

Coronavirus as Accelerator

Estimates vary, but among those whose jobs can be done from home, remote work has undoubtedly seen a dramatic spike. While prior to the pandemic, the number of employees in the U.S. working more than half of their time from home stood around 3.6%, that number had been increasing about 10% per year, and 43% of the workforce already worked from home at least some of the time. Analysts of workplace trends suggest that after the pandemic, at least 25-30% of the U.S. workforce will be working multiple days per week from home; teamwork and social bonding may take a hit, but the money saved on overhead is quite attractive for struggling businesses. 

Image Source: Quartz

As with their staff meetings, people have shifted to doing their grocery shopping online. In March, 31% of U.S. households used an online grocery service, more than double the usual proportion. Prior to the pandemic, however, online grocery system use had increased from 10% of consumers in 2018 to 13% in 2019. The shift to higher-tech in the food industry covers a wide range of services, from online ordering options to fulfilment robots, an option which may appear increasingly attractive due to general concerns about human contamination.  

Image Source: Digital Commerce 360/Department of Commerce

E-commerce in general has thrived. Amazon had to add 100,000 employees to its U.S. delivery and warehouse workforce to cope with the order volume from the pandemic, and continues to see its revenue rise, although virus-related expenses meant that its profits fell in the recent quarter. Again, this jump just speeds up a trend that was already progressing vigorously. The Western online shopping behemoth saw its net income tripple between 2017 and 2018, and its net sales increased 31% in that same period, with online retail accounting for the largest portion of its revenue. Similarly, Shopify, the online point-of-sale processor, reported first-quarter sales up 47% from the previous year. But it had already grown nearly 150% since 2018, with an ever-greater proportion of brick-and-mortar stores adopting online sales systems. 

Other ways of automating life, like dating apps, have also been experiencing far higher usage; Match Group, parent company of Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, and PlentyOfFish (as well as apps serving Middle Eastern and East Asian markets), is in for a good year. Social distancing notwithstanding, use of the popular app Bumble was up by a quarter in cities under shelter-in-place orders in March; video calls increased 21% in one week. Success is not new to the industry. The takeover of online dating has been happening for decades; in 2017, 29% of opposite-sex couples had met online or through apps, up from 20% in 2010.  

Image Source: Visual Capitalist

Many more already-occurring trends are being sped up. The automation of call centres, many too densely populated to be maintained in a pandemic, has accelerated greatly. Most universities have moved their courses online due to the pandemic, but the proportion of students receiving their postsecondary education online was already on the uptick.  Similarly, online video streaming has increased sharply, merely accelerating a trend which has been eroding cable’s market share for years. Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and the like have all seen an upsurge in viewership, with subscribers consuming an average of 8 hours of daily content.

New Realities 

These features of the outbreak do not represent novel changes, but rather rapid acceleration of existing movements.  Some of the most-bemoaned aspects of the shutdowns, such as the lack of access to restaurants and, in some cases, the outdoors, are in keeping with existing trends. Delivery services as a proportion of restaurant revenue were already increasing dramatically, and fewer people were spending time outdoors.

Evidently, some of the behavioural changes brought by the virus, such as cancelled events and travel, go against existing trends; many, however, do. The virus has also enabled certain challenges to market hegemons, such as allowing Zoom to build a network sizable enough to become competitive.  It is unclear whether disenchantment with the drawbacks of the changes will cause more hesitance in their permanent adoption, or whether the circumstances of the pandemic will merely speed the inevitable. Perhaps the sudden shifts offer a rare opportunity for individuals and businesses to glimpse the future, and to decide how they wish to respond. The long-term impact of the virus on these suddenly-accelerated tendencies remains to be seen. Only one thing is certain: it’s good to be Jeff Bezos. 

Cover Image Source: Insider

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