With the economy virtually shut down, consumers throughout the world in lockdown and businesses struggling with the day-to-day challenges of the coronavirus, it’s almost impossible to plan ahead. Still, WWD asked five futurists to take out their crystal balls and present their visions of the world, post-pandemic. How do these soothsayers conjure the future? By examining behavioral, technological and societal phenomena arising from past traumas, be it a world war, a natural disaster or 9-11, and researching current and evolving consumer behavior, product demand and lifestyle patterns across generations, geographies and demographics.
Among the key takeaways from the interviews:
• Brace for an acceleration of emerging trends in retail and fashion;
• Develop new businesses and take a deep dive into the business portfolio to examine what’s losing or gaining relevance, and
• Be prepared as best as possible for another pandemic. It will happen again.
While keeping his social distance, Paco Underhill walks the streets of New York City, noticing garbage cans.
For the founder and chief executive officer of the Envirosell behavioral research and consulting firm, and one who travels the world consulting to retailers, banks, web sites, museums and airports, checking out the garbage seems prosaic. But there’s a point to it. “As one of the consequences of being trapped at home, beyond going stir crazy, is we’re reminded of the need to pick through the things we own, and think about what we really need to keep. I’m doing it myself — editing — and as I walk the streets I am seeing evidence of [purging] in the garbage. This concept has been long in coming. We need to do a better job of picking through the things we own.”
Underhill is proposing that the pandemic motivates people to reassess what matters to them, whether it’s the stuff they hang onto, or how they work and live. In an interview, he focused on COVID-19’s impact on the home, work, consumerism and lifestyle, and looking into his crystal ball, he envisions:
• People rethinking where to live. Choosing towns over big cities.
• People of all generations developing better skills at using technology as they work at home more and teleconference.
• Reorganizing homes and furnishing them to adapt to working at home. Dining rooms and bedrooms become work stations.
• Shared workplaces like WeWork will be redesigned, altering conference rooms, offices and lounges.
• Dressing differently as more people work at home, retire and opt for comfortable, casual attire.
• Cooking more frequently at home.
“More people are using social media as a way to learn how to do cook things cheaply, quickly and efficiently,” said Underhill. “It’s interesting that Amazon reported [increased] sales of digital pressure cookers and crockpots.” With the digital pressure cookers, “the cooking time is reduced by almost two-thirds.…People are going to cooking sites, looking at YouTube videos, learning to make friends while learning about their ovens, stoves and appliances, and something about the storage of foods — what do I use my freezer for.”
Underhill said he’s working on a book about the future of eating and drinking that “gets into the conflict between what do I get from global suppliers and from my local farmers market and what are the differences.”
With the pandemic, he predicted, comes “a recalibration of our sense of hygiene — a trend we have been watching for 10 years which ties into how people think about entering and exiting buildings, handling cash, touching and passing along pencils and pens and all kinds of objects. Thinking about things that get transferred between people gets “eminently more acute,” said Underhill. Even home design gets rethought. “Twenty years ago, they started building McMansions,” large homes designed to accommodate families, extended families and guests, and to impress. “Once you have a McMansion, the job of keeping it clean is a major headache.”
The notion of intimacy changes in the context of the pandemic and afterward. “When my wife just got home from Europe, she looked at me and said she was required not to touch me,” Underhill said, half jokingly. The suggestion is that people could get in the habit of greeting others without that hug, handshake or kiss.
Underhill sees a shift toward village living as opposed to living in the big city. “It’s about the revival of the village, living in places that are smaller in scale, walkable to transportation, retail and schools, where you don’t have to drive a car, but can still have a home. You would be part of a smaller community, where work, education, recreation and retailing seem more integrated, and achieved in ways not requiring cars or subways.
“With the pandemic happening, people are living more local and forced to stay at home, and looking at the immediate environments they live in, and how they adjust. They could ask, ‘Why don’t I have a garden? One with fruits and vegetables rather than flowers and grass.
“Technology has made gardening imminently more viable and easy. It’s less about farming and more artisanal farming — being able to grow a salad a day for yourself,” said Underhill.
For Baby Boomers, the pandemic becomes a “punctuation mark,” or pivotal point in their lives, Underhill said. Retirement, or the prospect of it, becomes reality, some of it due to businesses closing or cutting back. “People begin thinking about doing something different, and considering what is the safest place and most expedient place to live in,” said Underhill. “The thing that bubbles up in my mind is whether I would like to live in a small town or a university town with a medical school and access to medical services.”
As lifestyles change, so does how people dress. “What is a uniform for work at home, Monday through Friday, versus what was that uniform I wore to work at the office?” Underhill asked. “We are going to see an emphasis on comfort uniforms. We see it already in terms of the yoga pants movement, and that idea of something that is stretchable and comfortable and good to go from work to recreation without going through a change of clothing.”
He sees two fashion trends, somewhat contrasting — toning down and brightening up. Monotones get more popular, enabling easy mixing and matching, and so does colorful, whimsical dressing since people are at home with greater freedom of expression. “The broader scope of the uniform world is going to be geared to more personal styles,” he said. The thinking is, “Today I am going to tone down and tomorrow take it up. There’s greater sense of choice.”
At the same time, “People will focus on fewer and better things…as for consumers, financially speaking, it becomes more of a conflict between the Verizon bill and the Neiman Marcus bill, and determining which one is more critical.”
Among those inclined to dress up for social occasions, which Underhill referred to as “the costumers,” the role of renting and sharing on the costume side of the fashion equation increases, as does the appeal of vintage clothing. “The pandemic is going to serve as an accelerant for trends already out there,” Underhill observed. “The issue of hygiene has already been out there. The issue of working from home has been around for awhile and is going to accelerate.”
It is safe to say that most consumers aren’t expecting to return to life exactly as they knew it when the pandemic subsides. But Future Today Institute’s Marc Palatucci is anticipating the nontraditional shopping habits that have been adopted will loosen up once the coronavirus gets under control.
Founded in 2006, the Future Today Institute researches, models and prototypes future risks and opportunity. Before the pandemic, it acknowledges how we were living in a time of tremendous uncertainty and anxiety stemming from information overload and the onslaught of technologies like automation, self-driving cars, genome editing, big data and cognitive computing. Add a global health and economic crisis and everything intensifies.
From Palatucci’s perspective, several factors are colliding and are changing consumer behavior. He said, “The twin factors of temporary retail closures and widespread house arrest are certainly causing an uptick in online shopping. At the same time, many people are feeling less financially stable, so a good percentage of that online retail growth is likely to be in necessity: groceries and sanitary supplies, for example, rather than discretionary categories like fashion and entertainment.”
More reactionary or required for these trying times, the FTI futurist envisions those habits evening out post COVID-19. “Those atypical shopping behaviors will likely subside after the effects of the pandemic pass, so we do not necessarily expect permanent changes to take place,” he said.
As for whether the Internet-averse will become converts to online shopping after the crisis subsides, that — like many other lifestyle choices — remains undefined. Palatucci said, “That all depends on whether they find the experience to be cost-effective and relatively frictionless. Many retailers are experiencing operational strain, due to increased demand related to the pandemic. If I’m new to online shopping and visit Amazon only to find that it’s going to cost me $60 to have four rolls of toilet paper delivered a month from now, I’m not likely to become a convert.”
However, he acknowledged “there are those online retailers that are able to adapt to this new opportunity, either by maintaining high standards of service even with an influx of new customers, or by attracting customers, who would not otherwise be inclined to shop online. They have the chance to significantly increase the rate of new account creation and see a lasting positive effect on their business.”
While retailers like Dollar General, Target, Family Dollar, Costco and others that sell essential items are allowed to keep their doors open to in-store traffic, thousands of other fashion, accessories, resale and athletic companies have been ramping up their online stores to offer discounts, soothing content and coping tips and sales incentives to try to reel in some of those at-home captive shoppers. Examining the current situation and looking forward, Palatucci said, “I think we will see a bump in e-commerce growth, while the pandemic is at its height. But there is no significant evidence to indicate that growth won’t subside, as stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and brick-and-mortar establishments reopen.”
He continued, “Nobody was expecting this societal disruption, so online retailers were not well-prepared to capitalize on the event and capture a potential new customer base. We may see growth in the frequency of purchases by existing online shoppers as well, but again, that is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.”
However it plays out, the “new normal” will carry with it traces of the pandemic. After weeks or more likely months of social distancing, many consumers may have lingering fears post-COVID-19 that could affect how they shop and interact after the storm. That could lead to a rebirth or boost for small independent stores, which inherently only have so much room for shoppers. Palatucci said, “There will likely be an initial hesitance to return to high-traffic retail establishments, which may bode well for smaller, more boutique-style shops in the short term. Also, any transaction that beforehand might have involved human contact will likely be adjusted to avoid it, as a matter of caution.”
But from his point of view, humans really are creatures of habit and in being so, we are more likely to go back to those practices. The FTI futurist is banking on that to happen sooner than later. He said, “As the memory of this pandemic fades, we will revert to our previous habits sooner than one might think.”
While thousands of stores, creatives and manufacturers are seeking advice, they may take heart knowing that such destruction can lead to immense creativity. Palatucci said, “Great creativity often arises from hardship or conflict, but that’s rarely a consolation when you’re experiencing that adversity. That said, we can always look at challenges as opportunities as well.”
As scientists and health officials speculate about the likelihood of COVID-19 resurfacing or other viruses mutating, preparedness and well-thought-out strategies are crucial, according to the futurist. He explained, “My advice is to take time now and assess what you or your organization needs to weather this type of storm, then make sure the necessary precautionary measures and contingencies are set in place. The data says there will be another pandemic in the foreseeable future, so if you learn your lesson this time, you won’t have to suffer twice.”
In a post-pandemic planet, futurist Douglas Stephens envisions people going for the gusto, appreciating life more, and opening their wallets.
“People will mark the fact that they are alive and healthy. Maybe they’ll realize it’s time to get to the beach. Maybe get that Mercedes they always wanted. I have a feeling that in the aftermath of COVID-19, once the dust settles, we could see a period of rampant consumerism,” said Stephens, an author, public speaker, founder of the advisory firm Retail Prophet, and native of Canada.
“A craving to get out of our homes, to experience real life, human connection — those needs one could argue are simply being pent up. The fundamental human needs, the fundamental need to seek community, I don’t think any of that goes away. There could be a backlash,” in other words, a reaction to the cloistering caused by COVID-19.
That’s a sunny prognosis for the current state of the world, though there’s more to Stephens’ outlook.
He cites a psychological phenomena called “mortality salience,” an acute awareness that death is inevitable, often associated with 9-11. “We all felt this brush with mortality, and learned to feel life could be over at any time,” said Stephens. He raised the question of whether the current health crisis, on a psychological level, compares to the impact of 9-11.
The retail business will be scarred. What’s being lost in retail sales may never be recovered. “Some aspects of retail are like seats on a plane. What you don’t sell today, you don’t get a second chance on,” Stephens said. “The industry may never see that revenue come back. People have held back on a lot of purchases. We may see people flooding stores in the aftermath, but many economists believe that a global recession ensues. How deep, how long, how brutal is anyone’s guess. It could make the 2008 Great Recession look like a speed bump.
“The operative question is whether the trauma of this whole outbreak and what people have to go through are likely to change consumer behavior in the long term. It’s about the degree to which consumers who may not have tried alternatives to their normal shopping behavior, who perhaps they never ordered groceries or apparel online, or never tried ordering to get a meal delivered, try all of this. All of a sudden, these are not just alternatives. In some cases, they’re the only means of obtaining those products and services.
“So are we going to see a very different consumer landscape? It’s very likely we will see shifts in consumer behavior that could be long-term.”
Though most retailers, large ones for sure, have developed online operations, those that didn’t “have to be experiencing an existential moment, and kicking themselves for not being better prepared,” Stephens said. For some time, he’s been envisioning an evolution of physical stores from not only selling channels, but also becoming media channels to acquire new customers, develop brand loyalty and encourage greater online shopping, as “massive” store closings continue. Well before COVID-19 hit, Stephens preached the idea of retailers selling ideas over products, removing racks of merchandise to create sociallydriven experiences, reengineering traditional relationships with brands into something different and modern, and technology automating retailers to greater levels of efficiency and productiveness, with sales associates getting increasingly mobile to communicate with customers verbally, while triggering pink slips on a massive scale.
“We have now billions of people working from home and many companies that have made investments that allow people to work from home,” observed Stephens. “How many in the aftermath say, ‘this works. We don’t need all these office towers and commercial space.’ There is a massive money savings opportunity. Take any bank or insurance company, as examples. They are going to be evaluating what would it look like if most of our workforce was virtual. Imagine the savings on utilities, maintenance, rent. And how much does that change the way we dress, and the need to buy clothing for business meetings.”
However dismal the minute-to-minute pandemic updates may be, the optimistic executive believes there is a lot to be learned from other health catastrophes like the swine flu as well as the seismic shift caused by the 2008 financial fallout.
The way Martin Lindstrom sees it, people might try looking at the coronavirus as the world’s fastest-growing, most powerful brand as opposed to a flu-like illness. More importantly, he wants people to ask themselves, “What would have happened if the virus had never achieved brand status.”
That experiment is meant to help people to shift their perspective to try to imagine a more manageable scenario and one that is not laced with a constant current of fear. Addressing the massive amount of fear that complicates and magnifies the international COVID-19 crisis, Lindstrom said, “In a world fueled by fear with social media in overdrive, a steady stream of 24/7 news on television — all streamed directly to the devices in our hands — Hollywood trailers and all our personal amplifications of personal and public news — all this may be a root cause of the global situation in which we find ourselves in.”
The author of “Small Data, the Tiny Clues That Uncover Big Trends” and “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy” will publish a new book, “The Ministry of Common Sense,” in June. In the meantime, he is trying to look at the coronavirus crisis constructively, despite the abundance of challenges it has created for varying degrees of entrepreneurs and conglomerates.
Well aware that business owners and creatives are trying to deal with everything that is happening, Lindstrom said, “I fundamentally believe that where there’s a negative side — you’ll always be able to find a positive opportunity. Instead of business owners going into panic by firing people, downsizing their business or just ‘waiting’ for customers to show up, you need to revisit your business platform and brainstorm about new products or services you can offer.”
Executives, designers and gig employees can look for answers in other difficult times and from nonfashion industries, according to Lindstrom. He drew the comparison to the 2008 financial fallout breakdown, when nearly every major U.S. car company had to be bailed out by the government. But the South Korean car company Hyundai decided not to lower its prices, but investigated and determined the underlying root cause of the issue. “The reality was that consumers indeed still had the funds to buy a car. They were just uncertain about the future — and thus were holding back. As a result, the Hyundai guarantee was launched. Ads ensured, ‘If you buy a car and lose your job within the next 12 months, you just return the car and we’ll return all costs,’” Lindstrom said. “Sales skyrocketed — and Lee Myung-Bak, Hyundai Motors’ ceo, later told me that only five cars were ever returned.”
Lindstrom added, “Despite the doom and gloom — see this as an opportunity to refresh your business idea, seek to understand the new market needs arising — then go full speed. Don’t wait. In principal you’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Without question there will be shifts in business platforms. Lindstrom chalks that up to “the simple reason that people are ‘forced’ to change behavior. And the longer consumers are ‘forced’ to stick with a new behavior (like shopping online rather than visiting the mall), the higher risk that they’ll stick with it,” he said.
Sometimes consumers need further convincing, though. Lindstrom pointed to such disruptions as the London Underground nearly being closed down some years ago due to a strike. Even though travelers would save six to seven minutes, due to the new travel path they were forced to adapt to, only 5 percent of them stuck with the new path once the strike was over after 48 hours, he said. Patterns or habits need to be in place for several weeks — if not months “before they have a profound impact on our permanent behavioral patterns,” he said. “However, once that happens, we’re likely to see that certain businesses, like open buffets in restaurants, gatherings in crowded rooms, etc., will vanish forever and will be replaced with other concepts.”
In addition, there is also the second issue of a long-term halo effect taking place. As displaced workers from the 2008 financial crisis can attest to, once people are terminated from their jobs it often takes years before they get into the workplace again, Lindstrom noted. “With millions of people now terminated, their financial spending power will change for years,” even though in the U.S. those earning up to $75,000 may receive onetime direct payments of up to $1,200.
That employment reduction will cause a lasting toll on the economy. “In short, we’re likely not to rebound the second the virus is gone. The economy will suffer for at least a year if not two before things are ‘back to normal,'” he said.
However grim that outlook may be to many, Lindstrom sees a silver lining. “Don’t go into panic mode. In my opinion this is way too oversaturated. The swine flu infected 2,000,000,000 (yes, that is two billion people) — 203,000 people died. Do you even recall the panic then? No — because there wasn’t any. Just as there wasn’t any social media around. Facebook was five years old. Perhaps this is somewhat self-inflicted. Don’t get me wrong — I feel for everyone impacted by this. But one rarely has sharp thinking when in panic.”
While many are wary about what the coming months and year will bring, Geraldine Wharry is ready for what awaits.
The futurist, designer and educator is anticipating the end of overconsumption, the rise of biometrics, the acceptance of holograms for business and social purposes, and scores of other changes. Avatars, AR, video streaming and gamification will be on a major fast track, she said.
When the coronavirus crisis subsides, more retailers may start using heat maps for preventive medical purposes and brands may be more inclined to sell their designs to shoppers, who in turn will make the clothes at home. The global crisis is already accelerating practices that were beginning to take hold. The number of consumers who favor secondhand clothing and rentals will continue to increase and digital fashion will become more of a thing, according to Wharry.
“Innovators are creating virtual parties where you can attend through a VR set or a party where you can create your own avatar. This will influence how retailers can sell clothing online in the way that LVMH did with the Leagues of Legend for Louis Vuitton,” she said.
Conferences and concerts will change as people take to delivering conferences through a hologram, Wharry said, adding that Facebook has been developing this for the future of Skype.
And for the future of traditional retail, Wharry said, “It’s the end of overconsumption as we know it, which America is a huge culprit of. We can’t just take outdated ways of functioning and bring them into new technologies. We need to rethink this idea, ‘It’s OK, I can still buy a lot because I can do it online.’ What for? This is a life crash course. Many people are going to go after their dreams now…of course there will be a segment of the population that still wants to consume and shop. After not being able to shop in stores for months, some will miss it and others will realize they really don’t need it. This is going to make us realize what is essential.”
Wharry realizes that now is not necessarily a good time to try to sell things, but businesses should not give things away for free, either. Brands would be better off to strategize and to build their communities externally or internally, the futurist said. Advancements and mistakes should be recorded for the next time this happens, Wharry said. “Because this will happen again.”
Given that, retailers may be invited to use heat maps, as airports did in China during SARS, Wharry said. Staying safe could lead to thorny ethical questions with big tech, likw should we need to give away personal information and biometrics to stay virus-free. “In the future, people may want instant feedback about their temperatures. We’ve seen that with [smart] watches. Haptic feedback and data is being woven into garments so that your heart rate and other biometric data is fed back. Those things were used for yoga and sports. They could have amazing benefits for avoiding pandemics, if all of a sudden you realize that you have a fever.”
From her standpoint, there needed to be a time of reckoning due to the amount of products that we consume and the amount of resources we extract from the planet. “Potentially, this will lead to a whole new way of engaging with fashion, repairing clothes more, and businesses may teach consumers how to repair clothing and how to make their own designs from home. That’s a different way of looking at intellectual property,” Wharry said.
Referring to the numerous interesting things she has seen on social media recently, Wharry noted how one of France’s biggest movie stars, Lou Doillon, Jane Birkin’s daughter, is playing her music at 5 every day and designer Helen Kirkum, who has worked with Adidas, has offered sneaker design workshops using everyday reusable materials on Instagram. “That’s bold because she is really sharing her IP there. This whole notion of exclusivity is potentially going to change,” Wharry said.
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