“Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

— Charles Mackay

“All great changes are preceded by chaos. ”

— Deepak Chopra

“Things do not change; we change. ”

— Henry David Thoreau

“The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity. ”

— Peter Drucker

We are in a time of great change, as you may have noticed. But we all know that it will soon, or sort-of-soonish, go back to normal – for sure. We just have to be patient and wait it out until the past at long last returns. So they tell us anyhow.

But what if “they” are wrong. What if many of the recent changes have already become permanent both in terms of environmental drivers and individual responsive behavior? Which they have. Huge implications for nearly every business.

The past and old normal are gone. Exactly what is replacing them (besides the still quite blurry future) cannot yet be readily seen. Or can it?

As of early 2021, we have been locked down, masked, separated, and a host of related major hassles and struggles for over a year. This is truly serious stuff and people are changing quite dramatically in response. How much of this behavior change spectrum will persist?

Healthline offers this helpful estimate on how quickly behavior changes lock in:

“It can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days for a person to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become automatic. There’s no one-size-fits-all figure, which is why this time frame is so broad; some habits are easier to form than others, and some people may find it easier to develop new behaviors.”

We are far past the outer limits of this duration estimate. This means that many of the behavior changes that have occurred are now permanent or mostly so.

Three forces are driving permanent changes in behavior

  1. Economic and regulatory environment changes
  2. Interactions among people and contact changes
  3. Online technology and capabilities changes

These changes, now mostly in place worldwide, are both unprecedented and huge. There is no going back. Ever.

Businesses have no choice but to change and adapt to this emerging new world. The driving forces themselves are continuing to evolve, often disruptively.

While it is as yet unclear where all of these changes are taking us, there are quite a number of directionally-strong indications that businesses cannot ignore. Buyer behavior in particular is undergoing fundamental change. Enormous change.

McKinsey & Company offers an intersting perspective on these changes: “How COVID-19 is changing consumer behavior—now and forever

“As the world begins its slow pivot from managing the COVID-19 crisis to recovery and the reopening of economies, it’s clear that the period of lockdown has had a profound impact on how people live.”

“The period of contagion, self-isolation, and economic uncertainty will change the way consumers behave, in some cases for years to come.”

“The new consumer behaviors span all areas of life, from how we work to how we shop to how we entertain ourselves. These rapid shifts have important implications for retailers and consumer-packaged-goods companies.”

“Many of the longer-term changes in consumer behavior are still being formed, giving companies an opportunity to help shape the Next Normal.”

The outline of major changes in buyer behavior

While we can’t see with any clarity the likely endpoints of all this change, we can certainly make out the general nature of where many are headed. Causal flows are becoming directionally and even structurally evident. Enough at least on which to base our business planning. Here are a few examples:

Healthcare and medical services

One of the most important and largely unavoidable areas of human need is healthcare. In past almost exclusively delivered in-person, travel restrictions and fear of medical facilities among other factors have moved many services to remote delivery. In-person healthcare has declined sharply.

  • Telehealth covers a broad array of remotely delivered healthcare services, including non-clinical services. An aging population together with greatly-reduced ability to exercise outdoors and to participate in sports is increasing the need for healthcare while other factors limit its practical availability and acceptability.
  • Telemedicine, an aspect of telehealth, specifically addresses delivery of remote clinical services. These services are coming to include anything that can be done without in-person, patient-practitioner contact. The internet and broadband availability are crucial to these services.
  • Personal healthcare has gained greatly in importance. Increased awareness of health, lifestyles, and fitness as well as increased attention to hygiene and healthy eating are beginning to decrease the need for many externally-supplied services. Lockdowns have created some ingenious approaches for delivering effective fitness services online.
  • Reduced spending on healthcare and services is another major change, driven partly by sharply reduced incomes, partly by concerns over in-person services, and partly by learning how to handle many healthcare needs personally and remotely.

It seems very likely that these changes will be largely permanent.

Work, workplace, and schooling

The shift toward remote work and workplaces, underway for at least a decade, has been greatly and abruptly accelerated by the various COVID responses. Lockdowns and distancing forced many office workers to work from home. Schools were forced into similar arrangements. These changes are so extensive and costly that permanence seems virtually certain.

  • Remote work and workplaces are a major focus of restructuring businesses but, as just noted, this trend has been in process for many years. The great advances in digital technology and communications have simply made this process much more feasible and effective. Local co-working spaces have added to the options for remoting, further reducing demand for large centralized, commute-dependent offices. Private co-working spaces are typically far less costly – rates roughly $400-600 per person per month – than typical city showcase corporate offices.
  • Teaching and learning both for schooling and business have moved hugely to the web, with videoconferencing technologies like Zoom. Teams, and Cisco becoming cost-effective and very capable for many such needs. These seem likely to evolve permanently into practical hybrid arrangements of remote and onsite. Content is now digital instead of print or classroom in-person delivery. 
  • Virtual meetings for many requirements are replacing the valued offsites in beautiful, exotic places with barely-tolerable, faces-only, remote-location Zoom sessions. The travel industry has been hugely impacted by these changes.
  • Social media are increasingly used for business purposes, further reducing former in-person interactions. Greater use of digital tools socially and for work are becoming vital for staying connected in a much more physically-disconnected world.
Co-working space near me (non-mask old-times photo)
Business travel and commuting

Both have seen dramatic reductions. Lockdowns have made interstate and international travel limited by quarantine restrictions. Health concerns have made public transportation for business, recreation, and commuting undesirable except where necessary or unavoidable.

Decreased mobility – much less commuting, shopping, vacations, business meetings – has even cut into the demand for fuels. However, delivery services are increasing so quickly that much of the fuel use may return.

Shopping, eating, and entertainment

Lockdowns have severely restricted almost every aspect of consumer shopping, eating, and entertainment activities. Social distancing and masking have removed many of the enjoyable experiences that were an important part of these activities and interactions. Most entertainment activities have disappeared thanks to social-distancing and occupancy restrictions.

  • Shopping has been hit by both in-store restrictions and huge increases in online shopping and delivery. Food shopping has become yet another chore for most rather than the in-store experience that it used to be. Consumers’ in-store shopping will shift more to local outlets as well as being replaced by online shopping plus pickup/drive-thru. Brand loyalty is decreasing as store assortments are narrowing. There is reduced impulse buying from in-store shopping. Consumers are buying mostly essentials and shifting from traditional walk-in businesses to online platforms for increasing numbers of daily needs. Retailers are seeing reduced shopping frequency, along with larger shopping baskets and trading down for routine purchases.
  • Eating has become largely boring routine like tooth-brushing rather than its socialization and dining experiences in past. Take-outs are now chores rather than fun. Prepared food delivery is growing quickly. Some restaurants are becoming kitchen businesses (see here), with virtually no dining experience content.
  • Entertainment and similar group activities have been greatly restricted and in some cases eliminated. Consumers increasingly prefer digitally-delivered entertainment and sport events since these are pretty much all there is anyway. COVID-fear is also driving long-term reluctance to associate in groups.
  • Shopping habits are changing dramatically as consumers go online for new or hard-to-find items, especially where buyer reviews are available. Communicating with customers for nearly all types of is shifting toward digital channels as in-store and sales-rep buying drops.

Consumers themselves are changing

This extended period of enormous changes has greatly affected basic consumer personal behaviors. Some examples:

  • People are getting used to isolation and limited interpersonal interactions.
  • They still have very restricted physical movement.
  • Online buying is causing reduced use of cash.
  • Online financial services like bill paying are growing.
  • Many people have much less money to spend than in the heady days recently past. They will manage on less long-term. Spending on luxury goods seems likely to take a permanent hit.
  • Reduction in discretionary spending is likely permanent and multi-generational, much like in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • Role of the home has changed into some combination of workplace, coffee shop, restaurant, and entertainment center.
  • Online buying offers convenience, time savings, and typically greater product ranges, making online buying likely to grow and become vital if not primary. Note that online buying has allowed companies to offer much greater product ranges because these can be centrally stored and distributed.

The above examples are just the tip of the iceberg. You can quickly come up with many more. What they do however is illustrate just how much buying behavior is changing and has changed in a very short time period – but long enough for many changes to become permanent.

How are businesses responding to consumer behavior changes?

There are some truly amazing and farsighted responses beginning to appear. A couple of examples from the restaurant world:

Medium.com writes about the rise of ghost kitchens and digital restaurants:

“The rise of ghost kitchens and digital restaurants — also known as digital kitchens, cloud kitchens, and virtual restaurants, depending on how deep inside restaurant industry parlance you venture — is perhaps the defining dining trend of the past few years. By one industry estimate, there are now about 100,000 virtual restaurants in the United States alone, with many bearing suspiciously search engine optimized names like the Omelette Farm and Pizza of New York. Research firm EuroMonitor predicts that ghost kitchens will be a $1 trillion industry in the next 10 years.”

“The basic logic of ghost restaurant brands is that they take much of the risk out of a generally very risky undertaking. According to a handful of industry estimates, the median cost of opening a restaurant runs anywhere from roughly $450 to $525 per square foot. But by focusing on simple specialty concepts like burgers or omelettes, avoiding highly coveted real estate, and sharing kitchen space, equipment, resources, and square footage, the barrier to entry in a notoriously difficult industry drops considerably. Some of the bigger ghost kitchen outfits like Kitchen United and food service vendors like U.S. Foods claim that a new digital kitchen can be opened in an urban center for $50,000, roughly 5% of the average cost of a regular restaurant. Meanwhile, tacking on an additional digital concept to an existing store can be done for as little as $5,000.”

“This extensive leveraging of consumer data has given rise to a staggering variety of ventures centered on digital ordering. According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, Uber founder Kalanick has spent $130 million in the past two years alone acquiring spaces for his ghost kitchen startup, CloudKitchens. The logistics and management software initially built by Reef Technology to optimize parking lots is now being used to build and run virtual kitchens out of shipping containers. (In November 2020, Reef raised $700 million from SoftBank.) In addition to serving as ad hoc offices, classrooms, and conference rooms, one of the many adaptations for hotels, which remain at limited capacity, has been to rent out their kitchens to digital-only restaurants.”

Zerohedge.com reports on a somewhat different response to changes in the restaurant industry:

“The virus pandemic did not change the trajectory of where the restaurant industry was headed, but it did force years of change in a short period. Restaurants are embracing artificial intelligence and automation to revolutionize their business models.

A new report via payments company Square titled “Future of Restaurants” discusses an overview of how technology is sweeping through the industry. Square partnered with Wakefield Research to survey 500 restaurant owners and managers across the country.”

“Other notable stats from the survey shows how restaurants are rapidly evolving in a post-COVID world:

> 3 in 4 restaurants plan on offering contactless ordering and payment options across all channels.

> 59% of consumers are willing to buy items that are not part of the restaurant’s core offerings.

> 42% of restaurants plan to invest in customer loyalty programs

> Restaurants that are using online ordering for delivery and takeout expect 62% of revenue to come through those channels.

> 67% of consumers prefer to use a restaurant’s own website or app for food delivery.

> 92% of restaurant owners and managers are open to experimenting with their menu.

> 88% of restaurants would consider completely switching from physical to digital menus.”

… and as readers may know when artificial intelligence and automation are embedded into company businesses models – they become job killers – suggesting technological unemployment will soar through this decade.”

Next step: Kitchen only?

A whole new buyer and supplier world is fast taking shape

Business changes in response to market changes used to take decades to play out. Driving forces then were technology, population growth, education, and communications – all things that don’t change quickly. Until COVID, that is.

The pace of change is now so fast that few businesses can fully keep up. Most are struggling with essential technology and business environment changes so may be losing sight of the buyer behavior changes that may be even more important.

Bottom line:

Businesses appear to be focusing obsessively on internal changes being driven by COVID and other forces, with minimal attention being given to their buyer market changes. This seems to me to be the opposite of what is needed. Customers and their marketplaces should always be primary. It may well be that some of these internal business changes will have to be rolled back or modified substantially as permanent buyer behavior changes become apparent. Probably too late to do much good. A formula for weakly-competitive followers.

The Economic Collapse Blog – not overly optimistic, as its name suggests – has a nonetheless interesting take on recent consumer and retail changes:

“One day after Fry’s Electronics announced that it would be going out of business, Best Buy revealed that it will be letting 5,000 workers go…”

“Best Buy said Thursday that it laid off 5,000 workers this month and is planning to close more stores this year as more consumers buy electronics online.”

“The news comes at a time when big chains face growing competition from Amazon and other sites that sell items like TVs and laptops. Fry’s Electronics said Wednesday that it would abruptly close all of its stores overnight, ending nearly four-decades in business.”

“I have always had a soft spot for Best Buy, and so this made me quite sad.”

“So many iconic businesses are crumbling, and America will never be the same.”

“Of course one of the primary reasons why so many traditional retailers are failing is because online shopping has surged during this pandemic.  But as online shopping becomes increasingly dominant, it has created an epidemic of package thefts…”

“Forty-three percent of Americans shopping online experienced package theft last year, up from 36 percent in 2019, according to a recent market research study. Of that 43 percent, almost two-thirds reported packages having been stolen more than once. The New York Police Department does not keep data to that level of specificity, I was told, and the most recent figures available for the city estimated that 90,000 packages had disappeared every day in 2019.”

“90,000 packages a day?”

CNN reports on Best Buy’s dramatic shift to online sales as in-store sales tank:

“Best Buy (BBY) expects 40% of its sales to come from online purchases this year, up from 19% two years ago, and the company said it needed to alter its workforce in response to this shift.”

“CEO Corie Barry told analysts Thursday that starting earlier this month, Best Buy had been adjusting the mix of full-time and part-time employees in stores, due to “having too many full-time and not enough part-time employees.” As a result of this reorganization, Best Buy laid off 5,000 employees, the majority of whom worked full-time. It also said it is adding approximately 2,000 new part-time positions. Best Buy has around 102,000 employees.”