Special Edition: Unlocking the world — what will our “next normal” look like?
As of this writing, 21% of the US population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. By May 2021, all US adults are expected to have access to a vaccine. At the current rate of vaccination, we’ll hit the approximately 70% needed for herd immunity by late June 2021 (even with vaccine hesitancy). And after 530K+ deaths since the start of the pandemic, there is light at the end of this tunnel.
Back in March 2020, just a few days after the US declared COVID-19 a national emergency, we put forward our thoughts on 11 ways in which COVID-19 might be an inflection point. Much of it was on the mark — supply chains diversifying away from China; booms in remote work, remote medicine, and remote learning; gig workers gaining greater security; the growth of video-streaming; rise of contactless payments; and more engagement on climate change.
A Feb 2021 YouGov America survey found that 21% of respondents, the largest response group, expected things to return to “normal” by summer 2021. Another 18% expected normalcy by the fall. But the world will not go back to what it was before the pandemic. So what will our “next normal” look like?
There are two dynamics in play. First, the trends that were already underway and accelerated during the pandemic will reset at new levels. The next normal, for instance, will see broader familiarity and comfort with video conference calls, remote work, telehealth, and digital payments.
For the businesses that saw an outsized sales jump during the pandemic, growth will slow on a relative basis. However, subscription- and other annuity-based businesses that did well will get to enjoy a larger customer base post-pandemic. Disney+, for instance, just reached 100M subscribers since launching Nov 2019, blowing out its original 2024 target of 60–90M — and it’s unlikely to backslide.
Second, rubber bands, when stretched, tend to snap back. With the unlocking of the world, people will flood back into airplanes, hotels, doctors’ and dentists’ offices, hair salons, restaurants, gyms, theaters, amusement parks, music festivals, cruises, and trade shows. Consumers are sitting on a record amount of household savings. While federal debt, inflation and over-valued assets are still of concern, we expect the economy will be lifted — at least in the post-pandemic near term — by a consumer spending boom (similar to the post-WWII boom).
Consumers get out of the house but expect online-offline experiences
US ecommerce sales grew 44% in 2020, in many ways pulling the industry forward by 5–10 years. But several recent surveys found that nearly half of consumers still prefer shopping in person. Ecommerce players from Walmart to Shopify are now warning of slowing growth, at least relative to the outsized surge over the past year.
The story is not that straightforward, however. Consumers going out into the world will still want the convenience of frictionless transactions. Contactless digital payments in-store — through services like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Google Pay — grew 105% in 2020. Cash usage, in turn, has massively declined — a sea change in how people pay in the US.
Consumers have also become comfortable with “buy online, pickup in store.” Grocery pickup — captured almost half of US online grocery in Feb 2021 and is becoming a larger share of sales. Businesses from Home Depot to JOANN Stores are investing in streamlining the pickup/curbside experience.
In-store experiences will be “elevated” with digital. Beauty companies like Ulta Beauty and Sephora have brought virtual try-on into their stores. Target is partnering with brands like Apple to create personalized experiences that encompass online and in-store. As companies invest in community, we’ll see more of them bring online community into the in-person experience. Social commerce and remote customer service will also find their way into stores.
Some businesses are pairing the in-person experience with digital subscriptions. 68% of people who started online workout programs last year plan to keep using them — and brick-and-mortar gyms have responded by offering digital streaming memberships. The Walmart+ membership — which includes fuel discounts and mobile scan & go — has also been successful in gaining adoption since it launched in Sep 2020.
Businesses are working to figure out their own differentiated take on the online-offline “omnichannel” experience. And it won’t be just offline businesses going digital — as consumers stream out into the world, we’ll likely also see more digital-first businesses move to establish their physical presence. IT and R&D will converge inside organizations, and businesses which had the capital to make investments during the pandemic will see some of those investments pay off.
- Dec 4 2020 (3 Shifts): Advances in remote customer service — from cloud-based contact centers to chatbots
- Mar 26 2020 (Brief #27): Grocery delivery, ecommerce & the renewal of Walmart
Small businesses keep control of their online storefronts
Before the pandemic, there was an enormous gravitational pull on small businesses — particularly those with online aspirations — towards Amazon’s platform. Amazon’s consumer traffic, fulfillment and other business services, and advertising channels were hard to turn away from. By late 2019, however, Amazon’s 3rd-party seller marketplace model was starting to see cracks — from criticism of its growing cut of sales to allegations that it used proprietary data to compete with sellers.
As the pandemic forced hundreds of thousands of brands/merchants online, many businesses turned to Shopify and other SaaS ecommerce platforms for their website storefronts. Amazon itself did well during the pandemic — its online stores grew 40% and 3rd-party seller services grew 50% in 2020. However, it has lately seen vendors leaving its marketplace for Shopify, often due to the difference in fees (Amazon typically takes a 30% cut while Shopify charges 2.4–2.9% + $0.30 for payments processing).
Shopify — which lets businesses keep control over their user relationships and data — saw its customers surge from 1M+ at the end of 2019 to 1.7M+ in 2020. It nearly doubled the gross merchandise volume on its platform in 2020. With the growth of merchant-friendly, low-friction services available in the Shopify/SaaS ecommerce universes (which is becoming an investor category of its own), businesses are recognizing that they don’t need to give up so much control — or share of revenue.
- Feb 26 2021 (3 Shifts): Walmart & Amazon team up with SaaS ecommerce platforms
- Jun 19 2020 (3 Shifts): Walmart will integrate with Shopify, adding 1,200 Shopify merchants to its 3rd-party marketplace
Streaming-first releases and tentpole theatrical experiences
As theaters open, we can expect to see a slowdown in the growth of streaming services (which grew 26% in 2020 to 1.1B subscriptions globally). Moviegoers are hungry for theatrical experiences. Movie theaters sold out (capped at 25% capacity) after reopening earlier this month, driving one of the strongest weekends in US box office sales since late 2020. In a sign of what’s to come in the US, Feb 2021 was China’s best month of all time for movie ticket sales. US box office sales could reach $4.5B-$6B this year — a strong recovery, though still below 2019 levels.
Movie theaters have been and will likely continue to be central to studio profits. This is especially true when it comes to tentpole films that can generate $1B+ in ticket sales. A hit movie might generate half or more of its box office gross during the first few weeks of a theatrical run, and high-budget movies ($100M+) are unlikely to be very profitable through just streaming. Theatrical releases also help attract talent and qualify for awards.
The tradeoffs are thrown into relief if we look at Disney’s experiments — a company which recently restructured its media and entertainment business to make streaming its content priority. These experiments, even with the advantages of quality content, large Disney+ audience, and Disney’s powerhouse marketing, have found only relatively moderate success:
- Live-action Mulan was released on Disney+ as a $29.99 Premier Access movie without a theatrical release. It saw just low hundreds of millions in revenue vs. an expected $750M and reported budget of $200M.
- Pixar’s Soul was released on Disney+ to all US subscribers without a theatrical release. It became the top streaming property during Christmas week (13% of viewers subscribed to Disney+ specifically to watch it) and eventually seeing $113M in overseas box office.
- The most recent, Raya and the Last Dragon, was simultaneously released as a $29.99 Premier Access movie alongside a theatrical release (boycotted by Cinemark and other theater chains). So far, box office sales have reached $16M in the US and $36M overseas. The still-unknown question is its Premier Access revenue but overall it’s unlikely to exceed the low hundreds of millions in revenue that Mulan saw.
Changes to movie distribution models such as direct-to-streaming and shorter/simultaneous theatrical-release windows are likely to persist in some form. This is particularly true for movies that are lower-cost and/or target a younger audience (which have performed better under the direct-to-streaming model).
Consumers are willing to spend $13-$17/month on a streaming service that has new movie releases (in comparison, Netflix’s Basic plan runs $8.99/month and Disney+ is $6.99/month). Direct-to-streaming supports the long game for streaming services, which is to get to scale, raise prices, and limit login-sharing (which Netflix has already started doing). Warner Bros. is investing its entire 2021 slate — including Matrix 4, Dune, and In the Heights — in building up its fledgling HBO Max streaming service.
That said, tentpole films will return to theaters as experiences — along with plush stadium seating and special events (e.g. cast reunions/Q&A). Disney has taken the tack of using high-profile miniseries to draw in (and retain) its Disney+ streaming audience. Its Star Wars’ 8-chapter Mandalorian series, for instance, was released over 2 months and reportedly cost $12.5M per episode — which seems like a better deal for Disney than giving up a $1B Marvel tentpole film.
As industry insider Kevin Smith succinctly put it back in Apr 2020: “They’re not gonna stick a Marvel movie on Disney+ because they’ve got some Marvel TV shows coming, and they gotta keep them Marvel movies valuable. Because those movies make f*** money, man, legit f*** money.”
- Dec 11 2020 (3 Shifts): Warner Bros. will release all of its 2021 movies on HBO Max, in parallel with theatrical runs
- Oct 16 2020 (3 Shifts): Disney restructures to make streaming its main content priority
Students go back to school but not everyone will catch up
Pfizer and Moderna both have vaccine studies underway in children and adolescents, but approvals will take time. However, as COVID-19 cases and deaths decline, schools from New York to California are reopening in person.
K-12 education after the pandemic will be different — and in some ways better. The pre-pandemic US K-12 education system had vast inequities driven by uneven local funding of schools. While the digital divide is still not closed, there have been significant efforts to address the connectivity gap. The scale of federal spending on education, distance learning, and broadband infrastructure — a major change in the federal government’s traditionally narrower role in K-12 — will have a lasting impact.
Both teachers and kids will also be more familiar with learning technology and more equipped to use it productively in the classroom. Teachers have learned how to facilitate a digitally enabled classroom and engage students using technology. Students are more versed with productivity and video-conferencing tools — preparing them for a future in which many workplaces will expect them to be competent in using these technologies.
With the growth in edtech vendors, we’ll also see a richer array of resources being used in the classroom. Classroom education will be more “social” — in the sense of both modern social platforms and human social interaction — and it won’t necessarily be a bad thing. Kids will have more engaging educational experiences, and parents will have greater visibility into progress as well as more direct lines to teachers.
Many private schools, even when remote, were doing full, structured school days and daily live instruction (rather than intermittent check-ins); they also tended to reopen earlier than public schools. Public schools, in contrast, have seen substantial learning loss (up to 9 months of a full school year) and serious inequity. In many cases, it took weeks or even months to get the millions of students without internet access connected, resulting in dramatic declines in attendance in some districts. It could take up to 3 years for students to catch up. Some will never catch up, leaving behind sizable disparities that will linger for the rest of students’ lives.
- May 23 2020 (Brief #33): What’s next for K-12 education & remote learning
- Jan 30 2020 (Brief #21): India is the market battleground everyone is watching
Travel comes back — alongside vaccine passports
As vaccines roll out globally, flight bookings, hotel occupancy rates, and cruise demand are already rising. A Mar 2021 survey by the largest network of travel agencies in North America found that 62% of US customers were planning to take their next vacation this year and 32% had already booked. A different recent Tripadvisor survey saw 50% of respondents saying they were planning to travel this spring (Mar-May 2021).
International travel — particularly in the second half of 2021 — looks to rebound dramatically. Tripadvisor, in its Travel Trends report published Jan 2021, indicated that the majority of hotel bookings on the platform for May 2021 and beyond were for international destinations.
The news isn’t all good, however. 62% of business travelers expect to be flying less for work and the next normal might include a permanent 15% reduction in business travel. Video-conferencing and other digital collaboration tools will serve as substitute for some types of business travel. With business travel accounting for up to 75% of airline profits, this will likely impact airlines the most.
“Vaccine passports” — i.e. digital IDs verifying vaccination to third parties — are rising to the fore as consumers look to travel overseas. Based on a survey indicating that 62% of US travelers were more likely to go to countries that required visitors to be vaccinated, it doesn’t seem like a vaccine passport requirement would be a deterrent to travel.
Israel has already implemented the first functioning version of a vaccine passport, and the European Union, China and Thailand are moving forward with vaccine passports. The US, UK and Japan are exploring vaccine passports, and organizations such as the International Air Transport Association, the Commons Project, Clear, and Walmart are also working on vaccination-verification apps. Vaccine passports are, in some cases, being merged into airline or other travel apps.
How vaccine passports are used is a different story. Israel’s passport lets residents visit gyms, hotels, restaurants, stadiums and other public spaces. China, which has barred most foreign travelers, is currently requiring travelers to be inoculated with Chinese-made vaccines. Also under discussion in different countries are whether vaccine passports might be needed to visit pubs and stores, travel on airlines or cruise ships, or travel to tourism-dependent destinations (e.g. Cyprus, Greece).
Vaccine passports are controversial, since 75% of vaccine doses have been administered in just 10 countries and the vaccine passports would discriminate against residents of other countries as well as individuals who medically can’t take a vaccine. There are also challenges in data exchange and standards and potential for fraud and counterfeiting. Depending on adoption and enforcement, we could see travel/tourism bifurcate between countries actively using vaccine passports and those that are not.
- Oct 30 2020 (3 Shifts): When is a COVID-19 vaccine coming and who’s leading the race
- Apr 28 2020 (3 Shifts): Airbnb’s IPO filing and the mixed signals from the travel industry
Companies and employees clash over returning to the office
One unexpected outcome from the pandemic has been the generally positive response to remote work. A Jan 2021 PwC survey found that 83% of employers thought that remote work has been a success for their company. Another survey in Jan 2021 from YouGov found that 86% of employees currently working remote would like to continue to do so after the pandemic.
In response, many companies — especially tech firms like Facebook, Salesforce and Shopify — have announced a permanent shift to a more remote workforce. Pinterest even paid a $90M termination fee to cancel the lease on its new office.
Even non-tech companies like Ford, Target and BP are allowing employees more flexibility to work from home, in some cases in hybrid models. Some are gravitating towards a “hub-and-spoke” approach (similar to large consulting firms), where a firm might have less space in more cities rather than a few large offices. Hybrid work, however, will require new behaviors and protocols to avoid a class system where those in-office are privileged relative to those working from home.
We’ll see continued (if slowing) growth in cloud-based services that support remote work and help manage the associated risk. The role of the CIO has expanded during the pandemic, and they now oversee a much more distributed organization and a larger and diverse attack surface. They are fending off increasingly sophisticated attacks, such as upstream “supply-chain hacks” and entry points via widely used remote-desktop tools (like TeamViewer) and email servers (like Microsoft Exchange Server).
Not all executives are fans of remote work. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has called not being able to meet in person “a pure negative.” The CEOs who are inclined to return to the office are generally framing the issue in terms of culture, collaboration, and relationships. 75% of executives expect at least half their workforce to be in the office by Jul 2021, and 68% believe employees should be in the office at least 3 days a week. Among tech firms, Google will invest $1B+ this year in an office expansion and is expecting employees to live within commute distance and be in the office 3 days a week.
However, the pandemic has changed the job landscape in fundamental ways, and employees now have more options for flexible work outside their organizations. Not only is the job market more receptive to talent seeking to work from home, freelance marketplaces (e.g. Upwork, LinkedIn Marketplaces) boosted by the pandemic are also offering access to more gig-economy opportunities. One Sep 2020 report from Upwork found that 36% of the US workforce (59M Americans) had performed freelance work during the previous 12 months — implying a greater awareness and comfort with freelancing in the labor pool.
We can expect to see employees with leverage push back on their companies’ back-to-office policies — and in some cases depart for other opportunities offering them the flexibility they need.
- Feb 12 2021 (3 Shifts): Water-facility hack exposes flaws in remote-desktop software & industrial control systems
- May 29 2020 (3 Shifts): Remote-first becomes permanent for many tech firms and professionals
Health awareness, the new in-home healthcare, and RNA therapies
There has been such an intensive focus on COVID-19 that it can be easy to forget that the attitudes and perspectives around healthcare for an entire generation of consumers have been reshaped. The concept of consumerism in healthcare is more than a decade old but old habits have been hard to break.
The lasting effect will go beyond just greater attention to hygiene. Younger adults between 19–44, for instance, have traditionally been disproportionately represented in the uninsured population. Healthy people tend to pay less attention to their health, while those with chronic conditions are more health-aware.
What has changed after 30M+ COVID-19 cases in the US is a greater sense of physical vulnerability in the broader population, paired with more education on the healthcare system and health risks. Many younger people also now have a chronic condition — 10–30% of diagnosed COVID-19 patients continue to experience symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and joint and chest pain (also known as “long Covid”).
This broader sense of health awareness will lift the new in-home healthcare — which is comprised of telemedicine, house calls, online pharmacy, direct-to-consumer solutions, remote monitoring and tracking, and API-based data integration and interoperability. All of these have surged in usage and investment during the pandemic, with nontraditional players such as Amazon getting into the health-tracking and telemedicine game.
We should expect consumer behaviors that were adopted during the pandemic (e.g. virtual provider calls on demand, ordering medication online, self-administered testing) to spill over into non-COVID treatment areas. For consumers, the experience — for better or worse — is becoming more like modern retail: On-demand, app-based, personalized, and bridging the physical and virtual.
Consumers may also be more willing to participate in clinical trials. For life sciences firms, clinical trials have always been one of the biggest hurdles — often taking 6–7 years. Recruitment of patients, in particular, is a major cause of delays (80%+) and trial termination (55%). In contrast, enrollment in Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trials took just months, allowing them to bring vaccines to market in less than a year. Previously, the fastest vaccine in history was the mumps vaccine in the 1960s, which took 4 years.
Broader familiarity with mRNA therapies will help accelerate the next batch of vaccines and therapeutics on RNA-based platforms — which are targeting conditions such as HIV, sickle-cell disease, malaria, cancer, liver disease, influenza, and cystic fibrosis. mRNA platforms have the potential to be transformational — turning a biological analog process into an information-based process addressable with software.
- Mar 5 2021 (3 Shifts): The future of RNA-based vaccines & therapies beyond COVID-19
- Oct 15 2020 (Brief #39): Telemedicine, house calls & the new in-home healthcare
Price volatility as supply chains struggle to catch up
Depending on the industry, serving the rebound in consumer demand may not be as straightforward for companies as bringing back workers into plants. Rising demand and supply constraints (e.g. winter storms) are squeezing manufacturers across industries. The Federal Reserve’s Beige Book released earlier this month mentions shortages 31 times. The recent severe shortages in semiconductor chips — and resulting shutdowns by the likes of Toyota, Honda and Samsung — are illustrating the challenges.
While there’s been a cascade of chip shortages in other sectors, such as smartphones, gaming consoles, and solar power, automakers have been particularly hard hit. Manufacturers are re-learning a painful lesson about the risks of “just-in-time” supply chains. Chip-manufacturing plants can take two years to set up and chips can take 3–6 months to make. Combined with global chip sales projected to be up 8.4% this year, shortages are expected to continue into the second half of 2021.
While the long lead times in semiconductor manufacturing are drawing an extreme example, other manufacturers will see a similar squeeze as their respective sectors rebound. Already we are seeing supply challenges in semiconductor equipment and boat components. Rising demand and supply constraints in polymers and petrochemicals — another industry with far-ranging impact — are causing downstream issues in markets ranging from yarn to sharps containers.
Even small changes in demand can create a “bullwhip effect” that reverberates along supply chains and dictate which players will emerge first. As companies rebuild inventories, shortages can drive double-ordering and over-stocking and result in overflow into adjacent areas like raw materials, contract manufacturer capacity and shipping containers — impacting unrelated sectors.
While a spike in prices might be good for chipmakers, chemicals firms, and commodities, the associated supply constraints will make it harder for the economy to bounce back.
- Feb 12 2021 (3 Shifts): The global chip shortage is putting billions of dollars at risk across industries
- Apr 4 2020 (Brief #28): Global supply chains diversify away from China
At 6Pages, we are inherently optimists. We’ve all had a tough year — heartbreaking in many respects — but tough times eventually come to an end. Human beings adapt and evolve, and new beginnings emerge.
None of us wanted this pandemic but it did serve as a forcing mechanism — a hand at our backs — making us speed down pathways that we were collectively dragging our feet on before. It forced companies and employees to understand what remote work entails. It forced regulators and pharma companies to push forward mRNA vaccines and an accelerated path to approval. It forced providers and consumers to use telemedicine. It forced public investment in connecting underserved households. And it forced small businesses online and they are not going back.
A large part of the future upside will come from what Shopify’s Tobi Lütke calls the “unreasonable leverage” of software — and especially software that enables more software. The “digital transformation” of our society before the pandemic was unevenly distributed. For better and worse, the parts of our society that were slow to adapt are moving into the digital realm.
The news isn’t all good. Kids will find themselves further behind. Companies will come out burdened with debt. But overall, our society will be more productive and more people will be better-equipped to work with knowledge and side-by-side with technology.
The real-world experiments created by the pandemic are a social scientist’s dream. We’ll find out what happens when students are accepted into elite universities without standardized test scores. We’ll learn how most of the US population spends a stimulus that has parallels with universal basic income. We’ll see what happens to the economy in the long run if the Fed purchases $120B in bonds every month.
We’ll find that perhaps the most significant lasting impact will be on our ways of working and living. Policy and society always lag technology, and the hardest part of change is the human side of the equation. Many of us are realizing we don’t need to work in a dedicated office to be just as productive. We can take an unscheduled walk in the middle of the day and spend more time with our families. We can save time by working out at home or talking to a doctor on a video call. We can meditate or talk to a therapist via an app. Technology doesn’t need to take over our lives — it can help create more space and time, and help us focus on what is important.
From the children’s book Cheaper by the Dozen, after father of 12 Frank Gilbert had died of a heart attack:
Someone once asked Dad: “But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?”
“For work, if you love that best,” said Dad. “For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure.” He looked over the top of his pince-nez, “For mumblety-peg if that’s where your heart lies.”
6Pages is a market-intelligence service that helps professional decision-makers make better and faster decisions in response to far-reaching shifts in business & tech. We scan thousands of news pieces, identify and connect signals of change, and turn them into deeply researched briefs each week on what’s happening and what it means.
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