Any major event with substantial economic impact and unprecedented shifts in market expectations naturally accelerates change—but a “major event” may be an understatement when history looks back on the global COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the U.S. and the world since early 2020. Not only is the pandemic causing serious health issues and dramatic loss of life, but its economic impact has been devastating for so many.
However, despite lockdowns, business closures, job losses, supply shortages and other events that directly impacted companies of every shape and size, there also came opportunities that are almost certain to remain a lasting part of the way things operate as we start to recover from the pandemic. Remote interaction (RI), artificial intelligence (AI), big data, a dramatic increase in e-commerce, a rise in entrepreneurial intensity, the re-analyzation of workplace culture—and even drones delivering to the front door—are just some of the things that are likely to be permanent in the new normal.
To get a greater picture of what to really expect, we asked the experts—members of the faculty from each of the nine undergraduate business majors at the Whitman School— to share their insights into the future of the post-pandemic business landscape.
Studies have shown that it generally takes approximately three months for consumers to adapt to new behavioral patterns. Since the pandemic has far outlasted that time frame, it is reasonable to expect some lasting changes in consumer shopping habits, according to Professor of Marketing Practice E. Scott Lathrop.
Consumers have become used to e-commerce, online shopping and no-contact delivery services, so it makes sense that these will continue to expand and thrive. According to Lathrop, many of these retail changes were already underway (think Uber Eats, Amazon Prime and Instacart), but the pandemic shifted these trends into high gear.
To remain competitive, marketers will need to further focus their use of data analytics to tailor prices, promotions and distribution plans to the needs of target customers. To reduce inventory costs, retail space will more likely be used to provide experiences and showcase products, rather than stock every size and variety offered. Consumers will visit brick-and-mortar stores to see, feel and touch merchandise before ordering it online for home delivery—possibly on the same day.
In addition, the rapid expansion of e-commerce will require more efficient supply chains that can reduce the high cost of the epic last mile of home delivery, according to Lathrop. “You may still spot the well-recognized brown UPS delivery truck in your neighborhood, but a post-pandemic version might not come with a delivery person going door-to-door,” he says. “Instead, imagine a fleet of drones released from the vehicle’s roof, clinging to packages to be delivered throughout the neighborhood before returning to the truck like homing pigeons.”
While the familiar shopping mall concept developed in the 1980s and 1990s will likely not survive, retailers will instead develop destination stores where authentic customer experiences that build brand loyalty will become even more important than shopping itself. Lathrop cites Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Seattle and several other major cities as an example of where patrons can sample the rarest and best-quality coffee blends from around the globe, enjoy a decadent dessert, take a barista class and purchase coffee beans or other branded merchandise—all while taking in world-class ambiance. And, lastly, Lathrop predicts that people will opt to take a vacation closer to home and avoid international travel, at least for a while. Staycations will more likely be the norm and may result in people investing in their own homes with fun and functional conveniences like home theaters, swimming pools, virtual gaming, home offices, video recording suites and smart appliances.
While the history books are not quite yet closed on the pandemic, there are many glimmers of hope and the certainty of change on the horizon. Those who intend to succeed in a post-COVID-19 business landscape will need to plan, adapt, accept and learn from both the painful and the productive lessons they’ve witnessed—all while being open to innovation, entrepreneurial intensity, data-driven decisions and the resiliency needed to continue to thrive.
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