The spread of COVID-19 has created a new normal, at least temporarily. Businesses shuttering physical locations and sending staff and customers home has altered the daily patterns of millions in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. While the crisis is urgent and serious, the silver lining of the drastic actions being taken is that they may accelerate the adoption of potentially disruptive technologies. Here are six technologies on the cusp of “crossing the chasm” that may stick around longer than the COVID-19 shutdown.
1. Direct Release of Major Studio Films
The Prompt: Movie theaters were one of the early casualties of the clamp-down on public gatherings. AMC Theaters, Cinemark, and Regal Entertainment — which together account for approximately 80% of movie screens in the US — have all closed their theaters for the foreseeable future, leaving film studios to either push out release dates for upcoming movies or find alternate distribution methods.
The Trend: Universal Pictures is releasing four of its upcoming or current feature films — including DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour — directly as digital rentals, becoming the first major studio to do so. This eschews the typical three-month window in which major films are available solely through movie theaters as “first runs” before they are available through other means.
The Future: While Netflix, Amazon Video, and similar streaming services release high-quality films from their in-house studios, the direct release of major Hollywood studio films has thus far been a dream. To date, the closest experience has been either to find a friend with an ultra-high-end set-top box capable of screening new films for $2,500 a pop, or to download bootleg versions online. Just as Spotify and Pandora obviated illegal music downloading, direct-streaming of first-run films may curtail the need for online movie downloads and massively change how we experience new release movies after the crisis.
2. Democratization of At-Home Fitness
The Prompt: Gyms and fitness clubs, like movie theaters, were quick to close their doors as COVID-19 spread. LA Fitness, Equinox, Planet Fitness, YMCA, Life Time Fitness, Gold’s Gym, 24 Hour Fitness, SoulCycle — all have shut some or all of their locations in recent days. With limited workout options outside the home, consumers and personal trainers have turned inside the home instead.
The Trend: Planet Fitness is streaming free online workouts to members and non-members alike — both live and on-demand. Gold’s Gym has made its digital training app free to all. Peloton has made its own app (and corresponding workout catalog) free for 90 days. At a smaller scale, boutique local gyms have begun to leverage platforms like BurnAlong to move their own program online.
The Future: Peloton was, of course, an early mover in the at-home fitness space with its cycling classes, but the cycle’s high price point and ongoing monthly costs limited its audience. As the coronavirus shutdown continues, though, we will likely see more and more consumers adopt digital at-home fitness solutions to stay in shape and relieve stress — and they may not give up their new routines when gyms eventually open back up.
3. Together, Remotely
The Prompt: Before the COVID-19 crisis, fewer than 4% of Americans worked at home full-time. As public health and government officials have called for limits on the number of people gathered together, however, businesses of all kinds have closed their physical locations and moved to remote-work scenarios. Employees whose jobs can be done remotely have turned to a number of technologies to stay connected with their colleagues.
The Trend: Zoom, a leading videoconference provider, has seen new records in downloads of its software — up to 600,000 downloads a day as the app reached the #1 spot in Apple’s App Store. “I feel like overnight, this is one of the catalysts where in every country, everybody’s realized they needed to have a tool like Zoom to connect their people,” reported Zoom CEO Eric Yuan during a Forbes interview. Zoom is not alone; Slack and Microsoft Teams have seen similar increases in demand. Teams, in fact, has seen its number of users jump by 40% in just one week to 44M daily actives.
The Future: What if companies find it is more productive, and less costly, to keep major portions of their workforces remote? The crisis may well make videoconference a mainstay beyond tech-forward adopters, swinging the pendulum towards remote work as a viable alternative to in-office work.
In fact, the implications extend beyond work; as a recent tongue-in-cheek New York Times article proclaims, “We live in Zoom now.” Parties, happy hours, dates — all are moving to Zoom. As with work, this may lead to new socially acceptable ways of interacting post-crisis.
4. Virtual Education
The Prompt: At least 70% of elementary, middle and high schools in the US have shut down in response to the spread of the virus, based on a USA Today estimate. That amounts to — at minimum — 20 million students. That does not include the number of universities that have moved the entirety of their classes online, including stalwarts like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford.
The Trend: Schools have been forced to shift to online learning. Leading videoconference provider Zoom (see above) has made accounts free to schools and students to facilitate classroom-like interactions, and others have acted similarly. Virtual classes and MOOCs, of course, are not new. What is new is the scale at which virtual education is being adopted (out of necessity) and the spread of online education well beyond its higher education roots to primary education.
The Future: Switching to online learning so rapidly at such a massive scale will inevitably surface problems with the model — for example, how to scale virtual learning for students with special needs or non-native English speakers, or for students without consistent access to technology. Being forced to work through these problems, though, may actually speed overall adoption of virtual learning by making it easier, spurring solutions to common problems, and promoting it as a norm.
5. Delivery-first Dining
The Prompt: Restaurants and bars have closed to dine-in customers by the thousands, either out of caution or in response to government mandates. At the same time, many restaurants have turned to take-out and delivery as a means both to stay in business and to meet the needs of their customers. To enable the shift, restaurants have turned to delivery platforms like Doordash, Grubhub, Postmates, and UberEats.
The Trend: Restaurants have increasingly viewed these platforms as their most effective channels to reach customers. The Wall Street Journal reports use of food delivery services has increased almost 40% YoY. Leading food delivery platforms have offered commission-free and/or fee-free deliveries in recent days to entice restaurants and consumers alike. Postmates launched a new “no contact” delivery format to alleviate concerns of viral spread through physical contact; Grubhub and Doordash have followed. Even governments have participated in the trend; New York City has decided not to issue parking tickets to the electric bikes used by meal delivery drivers during the crisis.
The Future: As with virtual learning, meal delivery itself is nothing new. (Grubhub, for example, has been around since 2004 and was the largest player until it was eclipsed by Doordash last year.) What is new is the widespread adoption of these platforms by users previously not considered tech-forward. If the adoption holds, we may see a number of the restaurants forced into delivery-first models stick with it after the crisis has abated, and a number of consumers continue with meal delivery as a primary means of obtaining food.
6. Digital Grocery Delivery is Back
The Prompt: In the new world of social distancing, even stepping into a grocery store seems perilous. As a result, consumers have sought alternative means of procuring their daily essentials.
The Trend: While the rest of the world is shutting down, Amazon is hiring 100,000 new workers to meet a massive growth in demand for at-home delivery, especially for groceries and household essentials like toilet paper. In fact, the company has paused the re-stocking of “non-essential” items in its warehouses to focus on the essentials. Walmart, similarly, has announced it will hire 150,000 workers to meet its own rise in demand. TechCrunch reports that grocery delivery app Instacart has seen 218% increase in app downloads in recent days, and Target has seen its app downloads jump 110%.
The Future: Grocery delivery has been “the next big thing” before. What the spread of COVID-19 has provided, though, is a near-perfect use case for digital grocery delivery services. As Mark Cohen of Columbia Business School stated, “Amazon is big enough and powerful enough and decisive enough to take up a significant amount of the slack being caused by all of the shutdowns.” What we may see as we emerge from the coronavirus bunker is a world in which the default is delivery, not in-store shopping — whether that happens on Amazon, Walmart Grocery, Target (Shipt), or Instacart.
We’ll all wait with bated breath to see what changes will stick post-coronavirus. Businesses who can find ways to adjust to new customer behavior may have opportunities to use their new COVID-19 mandated choices in a way that will serve customers in the long term. In the meantime – wash your hands and order in.
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