9 ways COVID has changed consumers, and business

By John Stackhouse
Published March 22, 2021 | 11 min read

A look at 9 major trends shaping the decade ahead, and the possibilities that exist for savvy businesses and innovators.

As the pandemic crosses the one-year mark, its early lessons are proving to have remarkable staying power. Six months ago, we highlighted some of the global trends that COVID had unleashed, in terms of altering how we work, shop, learn and more. We argued that even as the pandemic had laid bare our biological vulnerability, it also pointed to the promise of a digital future, and the opportunities for the governments, firms and individuals able to seize the moment. COVID didn’t trip up the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Instead, it gave it a big push forward.

The global recovery is now firmly underway, and growth in Canada and elsewhere has picked up sooner than expected. Outside of the hard-hit sectors like retail, travel and hospitality, activity is picking up, and jobs are returning. The economic scars may be less deep than we first feared. But it’s now clear that, even as the economy opens up, and we return to main street or travel further afield, we won’t be going back to the old ways.

Even as the worldwide health crisis subsides, expect a greater emphasis on how we nest and care for ourselves, and each other. Look for organizations that deliver on value (for their customers and shareholders) and values (for their employees, consumers and stakeholders). We will all want more options to learn and to create, on our terms and our platforms—and to challenge institutions and companies to better address our needs. And as we re-engage, we will seek new ways to experience more and share more. In short, expect more automation and more humanity in the years ahead, and a new creative age that bridges the two. The 2020s will be full of tumult and transitions. After the pandemic, it may also be a new age of purpose.


1. The home will be the new economic hearth

We’ll spend more time at home—for work, fitness and leisure—and seek to make our nests more digitally connected than ever.

What we’re seeing

  • We’re kitting out our homes for the digital future.
    • The number of Americans remodelling their homes grew 20% in 2020.1
    • Consumer electronics revenues rose 7% worldwide to $360 billion*. Sales of home computers and tablets jumped more than 10%.2
  • More nesting.
    • Cooking was the third most selected video category in the U.S. in 2020, behind music and comedy. 4 in 5 say they’ll continue to cook more at home.3
    • North American pool vendors saw sales rise up to threefold. Patio-heater sales were red-hot.4
    • Canadian pet ownership and spending rose 5% to almost C$6 billion.5
  • More play in the great outdoors.
    • U.S. snowmobile sales hit their highest level since 1995.6
    • U.S. ski-equipment sales jumped more than 50%, backcountry ski equipment even more.7
    • Golf equipment sales in the U.S. rose more than 10%, topping $2.8 billion in 2020.8

What this means

  • Higher real estate prices will encourage more investment in home layouts and furnishings.
    • Home offices will be a critical component of real estate listings.
  • “Last mile” competition will expand to services.
    • High-value service providers (vets, fitness instructors, tech support) will blend virtual visits with house calls.
  • Online browsing will be critical.
    • 3 in 4 Americans research home goods and furnishing online before making a major purchase.

What’s needed

  • $2 trillion in North American household savings could finance our reimagining of the home.
  • Professionals (doctors, lawyers and accountants) will need to deliver services differently, to a dispersed client base.
  • Communities can reposition themselves as “work/live” hubs.
    • Rural communities will need more digital connectivity and distribution networks.
    • Suburbs and surrounding towns will need to attract high-end service providers.
person holding a tablet with an image of a woman

2. HR will be the new IT

As hybrid work models become more entrenched, technology will be mission-critical to every HR strategy.

What we’re seeing

  • Hybrid work models are becoming the norm.
    • U.S. office employees expect to work from home 22% of the time, up from 5% before, according to one study.9
    • 81% say they’ll return to the office within four months if they can still work remotely part-time.10
    • 90% of American HR leaders will allow at least part-time remote work.11
  • Collaboration tools are booming.
    • Nearly 40% of office workers in China say they’re less efficient at home.
    • 3 in 5 U.S. employers are looking to spend more on virtual collaboration.12
    • Salesforce’s $27.7 billion acquisition of Slack underscores growing demand for remote-collaboration tools.
  • Tensions are growing, too.
    • 74% of workers surveyed in four countries including the U.S. and U.K. say poor mental health is hampering their productivity.13
    • Roughly half reported sleep difficulties and a decline in mental health feeling less mentally healthy while working from home.

What this means

  • Firms will need to root technology in every talent strategy.
    • Getting software and equipment to workers wherever they are will be critical.
    • We’ll see more investment in distributed cybersecurity.
    • Video and collaboration tools will become essential.
  • Performance management will have to adjust.
    • Employers will need to focus on outputs more than inputs.
    • Workers may demand more autonomy over how they manage their time.
    • Hybrid work models will make real-time employee recognition key.
  • Firms will redesign their spaces for the COVID era.
    • We may see active testing and tracing in the workplace.
    • Staff canteens and child care spaces will come to more workplaces.
    • Food delivery, and concierge services, will expand in offices.

What’s needed

  • Every organization will need to rethink its approach to innovation to allow for remote teamwork and distributed decision-making.
  • We’ll have to reimagine how spaces can facilitate physical distancing and creative brainstorming.
  • Employers should see effective remote collaboration as a competitive advantage.

3. Self-care will be the new health care

The recovery could spark a return in healthy living, with more physical fitness and mental health awareness.

What we’re seeing

  • 1 in 3 people around the world gained weight during the pandemic.14
    • 45% say they’re trying to lose weight.
    • Peloton subscriptions more than doubled, to 2 million paying users.15
  • Mental wellness is a new frontier of fitness.
    • Fitbit saw a 2,900% spike in people logging “meditation” as an exercise.16
    • 29% of American psychologists saw more patients—mainly for anxiety disorders.17
  • Virtual healthcare has been normalized.
    • 70% of Canadian ambulatory care in June 2020 was done virtually.18
    • 76% of clinical leaders say the pandemic has led to a significant or moderate shift in their virtual strategy.19

What this means

  • We’ll see more apps that enable people to exercise at home and away, including in gyms.
  • Health plans will need to invest more in data to monitor and measure all aspects of individual health, and reward progress.
  • Health and wellness practitioners will adopt collaborative models.

What’s needed

  • More public health dollars could be devoted to promoting self-care.
  • A greater focus on virtual treatment would improve costs and enhance the patient experience.
  • More mental health monitoring is needed to support those who’ve been disrupted and feel disconnected.
profile of a person

4. Small business will be the next data frontier

The rise of tech platforms and e-commerce will require small and medium-sized business to embrace data-gathering and analytics to better serve customers, wherever they are.

What we’re seeing

  • 40% of U.S. consumers are purchasing items online they would normally buy in stores.20
    • Amazon accounted for 40% of ecommerce spending in Q4 2020.21
    • Walmart’s ecommerce sales grew 69%.22
  • Over 60% of consumers expect to maintain or increase use of food delivery platforms.
  • Worldwide end-user spending on public cloud services is expected to grow 18.4% in 2021 to $305 billion.23
    • 70% of organizations plan to increase cloud spending.

What this means

  • The pandemic transformed the digital economy, bridging cloud computing and artificial intelligence for the first time at massive scale.
  • Tech platforms expanded their reach and consumer knowledge, giving smaller providers (merchants, restaurants, creators) access to new and bigger markets.
  • Businesses that don’t develop strong digital capabilities or can’t differentiate themselves will continue to lose ground to large tech platforms.

What’s needed

  • More micro-platforms, based on geography and sector, could help smaller and local enterprises share data trends, insights, tools and talent.
  • Reskilling programs need to be overhauled to massively increase the supply of data and digital talent.
  • Speed and convenience now rule every market; stimulus spending should include support for small business to invest in digital capabilities.
social connections

5. Trust will be the new crypto-currency

The pandemic gave people more time and digital connectivity to mobilize and challenge government, big business and powerful interests. As the economy reopens, businesses will need to better moderate the trust economy and a new age of digital dissent.

What we’re seeing

  • Trust in institutions plunged last summer and fall.
    • In the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, France was the only one of 11 countries studied to experience an increase in trust since May 2020.24
    • Businesses (especially one’s employer) are more trusted than governments in 18 of 27 countries.
  • Digital dissent is moving faster than corporate and government decision-making.
    • #BlackLivesMatter appeared on Twitter nearly 50 million times in the two weeks following George Floyd’s death. Within a month, more than 15 million Americans joined demonstrations in 2,500 towns and cities.25
  • The same forces are disrupting markets.
    • Since the beginning of 2021, Reddit’s wallstreetbets forum has doubled its base to 9.5 million users.
    • As of January 2021, retail single stock trades represent 25% of the overall market volume, compared to 10% in 2019.26

What this means

  • The challenges for governments (large-scale relief efforts and mass vaccination rollouts) have made the public more skeptical about institutions.
  • Digital dissent will remain mainstream and require every business to see an opportunity to listen and learn.
  • Businesses that align themselves with strong social movements and networks can strengthen their relationship with customers and employees.

What’s needed

  • Business will need to lean into all aspects of the recovery, to engage in solving greater problems.
  • Communications with consumers, investors and suppliers will need to shift to more open and interactive channels.
  • Researchers and educators can use the pandemic to explore the role of institutions—and their accountability—in addressing the crisis, and what can be learned.
global tree

6. Business will lead government on climate change

The pandemic has shown both the power and limitations of government, leaving many complex problems now in the hands of business to solve. Climate tops the list.

What we’re seeing

  • Net Zero will reshape the 2020s.
    • Nearly half of the companies representing over 80% of all industrial GHG emissions globally set a net-zero target or ambition in 2020.27
    • 127 governments, covering 63% of the global economy, have net-zero goals.28
  • The pandemic revealed the challenges of rapid emissions reductions.
    • A 6% decrease in energy-related CO2 emissions over 2020 was the largest absolute drop in history.29
    • By December, emissions were 2% higher over the previous year.
  • Consumers can be slow to change.
    • SUVs and trucks accounted for 85% of Canadian vehicle sales in February.30 From 2010 to 2018, SUVs were the second largest contributor to the increase of global CO2 emissions.31
    • 58% of consumers say they haven’t opted for low carbon emission and/or shared modes of transport.32
    • 120 models of EVs are expected to enter the Canadian market in the coming years, which may stimulate demand and lower prices.33

What this means

  • Environmental, social and governance (ESG) progress has become the norm, as the pandemic focused the public mind on global and existential challenges.
  • The inability of individuals to combat the virus added to a growing sense of disenfranchisement.
  • If climate change continues to be the biggest public concern for the recovery, business will have to take a leading role, as governments struggle with the aftershocks of a health and economic crisis.

What’s needed

  • A new model of public-private cooperation could tackle long-term challenges, with clear accountabilities that transcend changes in governments.
  • Firms should seek more clearly defined roles and responsibilities in resolving climate challenges.
  • We’ll need more clarity on the differences between short-term and long-term measures (and costs) to reduce emissions.

7. A creativity boom will reshape the content business (and every business is a content business)

The pandemic accelerated a decade-long explosion of user-generated content, as people gained the tools and time needed to craft powerful messages.

What we’re seeing

  • Video continues to dominate digital content growth.
    • 84% of U.S. audiences say they watched more or the same amount of short-form videos than before the pandemic.34
    • The average U.S. consumer now has four streaming video subscriptions.35
  • Gaming dominates audience growth.
    • YouTube doubled its hours of gaming content watched from 2018, surpassing 100 billion hours.36
    • More than 350 YouTube gaming creators have surpassed 10 million subscribers.
  • Traditional content such as sports media continues to decline.
    • 2020 saw the least watched World Series on record, the Super Bowl hit a 15-year low, and the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals were down 61% and 51%, respectively, versus 2019.37
    • Some individual sports held their own. The 2020 PGA Championship enjoyed its best viewership in five years.

What this means

  • Advertisers and content creators must figure out how to reach audiences with more choices and shorter attention spans.
  • Gen Z consumers will expect to be co-authors and co-producers of content, whether it’s social messaging or advertising.
  • Gaming design will shape content, from political messaging to school curricula, with users expecting immersive multimedia options.

What’s needed

  • Education must integrate design principles and multimedia capabilities.
  • Traditional sectors (agriculture, engineering and public policy) should seek to collaborate more with creative sectors (film, gaming and graphics design).
  • Canada should look to attract global multimedia and design talent.

8. Digital learning will bridge remote and in-class learning

Too many schools put classrooms on a screen, when they should have invested in digital tools and aptitudes to personalize and improve education.

What we’re seeing

  • A global survey found that online learning set students back 1.5-3 months depending on the subject.38 A U.K. study found that missing a half-year of schooling could translate to lifetime earnings loss equal to C$70,000.39
  • Math was one of the greatest challenges. A study of 8,000 U.S. schools found a performance drop in math of 5-10 percentile points in 2020.40
  • Academic integrity is being challenged. The University of Waterloo caught three times as many students cheating in the last academic year.41

What this means

  • Our rush to distance learning didn’t improve education outcomes, as connections were lost between instructor and student, and between students.
  • A generation is now at risk of permanent educational setbacks, which will have long-ranging consequences. Ambitious approaches will be needed through 2021 to help them catch up.
  • Many colleges and universities didn’t use the crisis to transform their models.

What’s needed

  • A new approach could balance in-person and remote learning with digital tools for so-called “asynchronous learning,” as most learning occurs outside the classroom.
  • Lower income communities will need major investments in wifi and digital access. New York City public schools found more than 60,000 students still lack devices needed for online learning.
  • A strategic review of every aspect of education—teacher training, classroom design and more—would position future generations for an age of hybrid learning.
hand holding hearts

9. Micro-giving will transform charity

The same digital forces that are changing the way we work, shop and dine can revitalize philanthropy, which declined in the pandemic.

What we’re seeing

  • We’re giving less. Some 42% of organizations that received donations in 2019 got less in 2020.42
  • We’re giving to very local and very distant causes. Food banks saw a surge of donations. So, too, did the Australian bushfires, which drew more than $500 million in support.43
  • We’re looking for social good. Benevity, a Canadian donation-management platform, saw a 70%+ increase in donations, largely through corporate portals.44

What this means

  • Traditional fundraising events will transform themselves as virtual experiences.
  • Social organizations will look to embed themselves in consumer experiences, from “rounding up” options to virtual fundraisers on exercise apps.
  • Charities will evolve as content organizations, promoting themselves through augmented reality in video, music and gaming experiences.

What’s needed

  • Pools of tech talent could support smaller charities and community organizations.
  • Social organizations could benefit from platform-driven strategies.
  • Technology companies and social organizations could partner to innovate in fundraising and volunteering.

+ Appendix

1 Comscore, “As millions stay home, home furnishing sites see record spend and visitation”, December 9, 2020. https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Blog/As-millions-stay-home-home-furnishing-sites-see-record-spend-and-visitation

2 Strategy Analytics, “Global Consumer Electronics Market Forecasts 2014-2024: Forecast Update Summary”, January 15, 2021. https://www.strategyanalytics.com/access-services/devices/connected-home/consumer-electronics/market-data/report-detail/global-consumer-electronics-market-forecasts-2014-2024-forecast-update-summary

3 TheSoul Publishing, “U.S. Viewer Trend Survey”, Dec. 2, 2020. https://www.thesoul-publishing.com/post/adweek-shares-results-of-thesoul-publishing-s-viewer-trend-survey

4 Reuters, “Pool sales skyrocket as consumers splash out on coronavirus cocoons”, August 6, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-pools-idUSKCN2520HW

5 Pete Evans, “Pandemic isolation sees booming demand for pets – and for businesses that cater to them”, CBC, Dec. 27, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/pandemic-pet-business-1.5850051

6 International Snowmobile Manufacturers Assocation (ISMA), January 2021. http://www.snowmobile.org/

7 The NPD Group, “Backcountry Equipment Performance”, December 14, 2020. https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/us/news/press-releases/2020/a-blizzard-for-early-season-backcountry-equipment-sales-as-consumers-set-their-sights-on-cold-weather-outdoor-activities--reports-npd/

8 Golf Datatech, “2020 Retail & Rounds Performance”, January 25, 2021. https://www.golfdatatech.com/2021/01/golf-datatech-releases-2020-retail-rounds-performance-report/

9 Barrero et al, “Why Working From Home Will Stick”, University of Chicago, December 2020. https://bfi.uchicago.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/BFI_WP_2020174.pdf

10 Aetna International, “Global Employee Health Study”, November 2020. https://www.aetnainternational.com/content/dam/aetna/pdfs/aetna-international/Explorer/Global-Employee-Health-Study-Data.pdf

11 Gartner, December 15, 2020. https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/12-14-2020-gartner-survey-finds-ninety-percent-of-hr-leaders-will-allow-employees-to-work-remotely-even-after-covid-19-vaccine-is-available

12 PricewaterhouseCoopers, “PwC’s US Remote Work Survey”, January 2021. https://www.pwc.com/us/en/library/covid-19/us-remote-work-survey.html

13 Aetna International, “Global Employee Health Study”, November 2020. https://www.aetnainternational.com/content/dam/aetna/pdfs/aetna-international/Explorer/Global-Employee-Health-Study-Data.pdf

14 Ipsos, “Two in five Americans have gained weight during the pandemic”, January 25, 2021. https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/two-five-americans-gained-weight-during-pandemic#:~:text=Since%20the%20start%20of%20the,they%20put%20on%2014.5%20pounds.

15 Peloton, “Shareholder Letter, Q2 2021”, February 4, 2021. https://investor.onepeloton.com/static-files/dd43f8b8-acc9-443a-bc51-fd26433ec549

16 Fitbit, October 20, 2020. https://blog.fitbit.com/finding-your-pandemic-flow/

17 American Psychological Association, November 17, 2020. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/11/anxiety-depression-treatment

18 C.D. Howe, “Canada’s Virtual Care Revolution”, December 8, 2020. https://www.cdhowe.org/public-policy-research/canada%E2%80%99s-virtual-care-revolution-framework-success

19 Deloitte, “Virtual health accelerated”, February 18, 2021. https://www2.deloitte.com/xe/en/insights/industry/health-care/virtual-health-accelerated.html

20 Numerator, “The Impact of COVID-19 on Consumer Behavior”, January 28, 2021

21 Digital Commerce 360, February 19, 2021. https://www.digitalcommerce360.com/article/quarterly-online-sales/#:~:text=Amazon%20accounts%20for%20nearly%20half%20of%20all%20ecommerce%20growth&text=The%20web%20giant's%20revenue%20reached,revenue%20jump%20during%20Q4%202019.

22 Walmart, February 18, 2021. https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/2021/02/18/walmart-reports-record-q4-and-fy21-revenue

23 Gaurav Aggarwal, “How The Pandemic Has Accelerated Cloud Adoption”, Forbes, January 15, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2021/01/15/how-the-pandemic-has-accelerated-cloud-adoption/?sh=3dc3bf046621

24 Edelman, “Edelman Trust Barometer 2021”, February 2021. https://www.edelman.com/trust/2021-trust-barometer

25 Pew Research Center, June 10, 2020. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/10/blacklivesmatter-surges-on-twitter-after-george-floyds-death/

26 Goldman Sachs, “Markets Update: January’s Record Inflows and Retail Trading Boom”, January 29, 2021. https://www.goldmansachs.com/insights/podcasts/episodes/01-29-2021-scott-rubner.html

27 RBC Capital Markets, 2021

28 RBC Capital Markets, 2021

29 International Energy Agency, March 2, 2021. https://www.iea.org/news/after-steep-drop-in-early-2020-global-carbon-dioxide-emissions-have-rebounded-strongly

30 Good Car Bad Car, “2021 Canada Monthly Auto Sales”, March 5, 2021. https://www.goodcarbadcar.net/2021-canada-vehicle-sales-figures-by-model/

31 Laura Cozzi & Apostolos Petropoulos, “Growing preference for SUVs challenges emission reductions in passenger car market,” International Energy Agency, October 15, 2019. https://www.iea.org/commentaries/growing-preference-for-suvs-challenges-emissions-reductions-in-passenger-car-market

32 Deloitte, “Shifting sands: How consumer behaviour is embracing sustainability”. https://www2.deloitte.com/ch/en/pages/consumer-business/articles/shifting-sands-sustainable-consumer.html

33 Canadian Club, “Electric Vehicles”, March 3, 2021. https://www.mediaevents.ca/canadianclub-20210303/

34 TheSoul Publishing, “U.S. Viewer Trend Survey”, Dec. 2, 2020. https://www.thesoul-publishing.com/post/adweek-shares-results-of-thesoul-publishing-s-viewer-trend-survey

35 J.D. Power, “Streaming Pulse Survey”, January 2021. https://discover.jdpa.com/hubfs/Files/Industry%20Campaigns/TMT/New%20Streaming%20Services%20Cut%20into%20Netflixs%20Market%20Share%20While%20The%20Mandalor.._.pdf

36 YouTube, “2020 is YouTube’s biggest year”, December 8, 2020. https://blog.youtube/news-and-events/youtube-gaming-2020/

37 SportsPro Media, December 2020. https://www.sportspromedia.com/analysis/us-sports-tv-ratings-decline-nfl-nba-finals-world-series-nhl-covid-19

38 McKinsey & Co., “Teacher survey: Learning loss is global – and significant”, March 1, 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/teacher-survey-learning-loss-is-global-and-significant

39 Luke Sibieta, Institute for Fiscal Studies, February 1, 2021. https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/15291

40 Brookings Institution, “How is COVID-19 affecting student learning?”, December 3, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brown-center-chalkboard/2020/12/03/how-is-covid-19-affecting-student-learning/

41 Paula Duhatschek, “Cheating skyrockets at UW amid pandemic”, CBC, Dec. 14, 2020. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/kitchener-waterloo/university-of-waterloo-student-cheating-skyrockets-amid-pandemic-1.5836508

42 RBC, “COVID Upends the Charitable Playbook”, January 26, 2021. https://royal-bank-of-canada-2124.docs.contently.com/v/covid-upends-the-charitable-playbook-report

43 Katherine Chatfield, “Australian bushfires: Where $500m in donations went and what’s next”, December 16, 2020. https://au.news.yahoo.com/australian-bushfires-where-500m-in-donations-went-051213886.html#:~:text=Over%20%24500%20million%20was%20donated,and%20St%20Vincent%20de%20Paul. 

44 RBC, “COVID Upends the Charitable Playbook”, January 26, 2021. https://royal-bank-of-canada-2124.docs.contently.com/v/covid-upends-the-charitable-playbook-report

John Stackhouse

John Stackhouse
Senior Vice President, Office of the CEO, Royal Bank of Canada