As we near the second anniversary of the onset of COVID-19, the world is still struggling to fully comprehend the virus’ full impact on human behaviors. While experts and laypeople alike have tracked many of the most significant changes – the fluctuating shopping behaviors, Remote Work wave, and crowd avoidance – we are still at the beginning of what will be a very long road to “normal,” if we ever get there at all. (Full disclosure: I work at Foursquare, the leading independent location tech company).
The fact that we may never go “back to before,” however, does not mean that all is lost. Enormous change creates enormous opportunity. Businesses in the industries the pandemic hit hardest – like retail, dining, and travel – also have the most to gain. Grabbing those opportunities, however, means understanding what is coming next and planning accordingly. Data collected over the two years of the pandemic will help us predict the consumer trends that will continue, or even accelerate, in the year that’s just begun.
After the last two difficult years, learning from these trends will determine which businesses grow stronger than ever and which join the hundreds of thousands that have already shuttered.
The data point to three major trends in 2022:
1. People are changing where they live and how they work
There are different ways of looking at how people move through the world – be it commuting to and from work, moving to a different city or state, or traveling to new vacation destinations.
The pandemic has disrupted virtually every major human movement pattern.
Interestingly, major disruptions and shifts in the human movement were not just limited to the first 10-12 months of the pandemic. We still experienced them throughout 2021, and they will continue this year. For example, it’s likely that people will continue to move from big cities to suburbs, particularly if they have a preference for remote work. Indeed, our data shows that the majority of in-office professionals are urban dwellers.
Remote work as a whole isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. As it stands, ⅔ of employees have returned to the office but nearly a third are still working remotely full time. Out of those going into the office, 44% are only doing so a few days a week, mostly between Tuesday and Thursday.
This dynamic looks permanent. One would think vaccines and dropping COVID numbers would push us towards normal, but that hasn’t been the case. Despite the progress, foot traffic to offices across the U.S. has not significantly increased since this time last year and hovers at around the same volume as November 2020.
The upshot? Businesses whose model depends on people returning to the office the way they used to are in for a rude awakening.
2. Local haunts and Main Streets will see more activity
It’s not just where you live or work – COVID has impacted many previously established habits and routine behaviors. Pre-pandemic, many people may have visited a coffee shop near their office on their way into work, or purchased lunch from the same restaurant down the block from their office several times a week.
Moving forward, we’re going to see more activity in small towns and areas local to where people live as opposed to where they once worked. Remote professionals may not be going into the office as frequently, but they are still venturing out — dining at restaurants, traveling, and hitting the gym. In fact, Foursquare’s data shows that while in-office professionals are visiting places like bars, airports, and concert venues more than remote professionals, a significant number of remote professionals are still getting out and about.
In short, the pandemic has made people’s “living radius,” smaller; they’ll go out, but won’t venture as far from home. The lesson for businesses, then, is you need a presence near where people live if you want their patronage.
3. Well established shopping behaviors will be upended
Exacerbated no doubt by the ongoing supply chain shortages, the retail ecosystem is grappling with major shifts in how and where customers are shopping – and these trends are likely going to continue well into the new year. Online shopping may have spiked with the onset of everyone going remote, but consumers are now returning to their normal pastimes, with 62% intending to shop both in-stores and online for the holidays, and less than 15% opting to shop entirely on the web.
The shifts go beyond fluctuating preferences for in-store versus online. According to an analysis we conducted in early December, Americans are shopping earlier in the week and earlier in the day than they did pre-pandemic. This data aligned with what we found when we compiled a larger report in early 2021 that examined foot traffic during the first year of the pandemic, suggesting that these shifts in previously well-established habits are here to stay.
Retailers, then, need to understand they’re not dealing with the “after-work rush” anymore. It’s more fluid, and earlier. They need to staff up accordingly.
Long-held brand loyalties are also on the line. Consumers are more willing to cross-shop, searching across several retailers and even direct competitors to find what they are looking for. For example, roughly 15% of Target shoppers also visited a Walmart store within 24 hours (a 3.3 % point increase from 2020), and similar trends are visible between competitors in various categories, such as Lowe’s/Home Depot. This is expected to continue for a while as supply chain shortages also mean variable inventory online and at certain stores. Retailers are now having to pivot and think of new ways to instill brand loyalty, even when stock is low.
Ways of working, consumer demand, and company strategies will all continue to fluctuate in 2022. As a result, the demand for accurate and high volumes of data that can help companies better understand consumers will also skyrocket in the new year, creating a domino effect as businesses work to improve their internal data science capabilities and identify partners to help them make sense of all the noise. Indeed, 2022 will be a fast-paced year requiring businesses to be nimble, responsive and (of course) data-vigilant.
The pandemic may feel like it has lasted forever; there are no shortage of memes on how, in COVID times, time has no meaning. Yet the pandemic has forced decades worth of behavioral change into two years. The businesses that thrive will be the ones that adapt to these changes at just as dizzying a pace.