3 Ways 2021 (and Beyond) Will Be Different

It’s that time when it seems every consultant, analyst, and media outlet is sharing predictions for the new year. And coming out of 2020, there’s a lot at stake and nothing’s a given when it comes to 2021. That’s why HighPoint Associates wanted to dust off our proverbial crystal ball and share our thoughts on the ways we think the current year has already drastically changed how just about everyone will live life and do business next year (and likely for years after).

1. Online will be omnipresent.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the boost e-commerce received during the pandemic is here to stay. And while we feel many claims of Main Street being dead are overblown, we do believe brick-and-mortar businesses that want to stay in business need to get serious about omnichannel. If anything, 2020 was a lesson in adaptability and a wake-up call for retailers that have previously dragged their feet when it comes to investing in growing online sales. Bed Bath & Beyond is just one cautionary tale, with its permanently closing 200 stores and cutting 5% of its workforce due to declining in-store sales that pre-dated the pandemic. COVID-19 certainly didn’t help matters.

Until the masses are comfortable with returning to in-person shopping–and there are few if any reliable predictions indicating when that will be – retailers are going to have to develop smart CRM capabilities and invest in technologies that will enable successful omnichannel retailing. One thing is for sure: Once consumers do return to in-store shopping, it will have to be a consistently good experience with high-quality interactions, knowledgeable sales staff, available product, accurate and competitive pricing, and other value-adds to keep store doors open.

For more insights on driving success for retailers in the time of COVID, read A Retail Guide to Navigating an Unprecedented Holiday Season.

But it’s not just stores that are going digital to stay relevant: With most of the country Netflix-and-chilling to get through the pandemic, streaming content is hotter than ever. Add to that movie theaters going dark until further notice, we now have production studios embracing streaming and immediately releasing their newest content directly to subscribers or with optional on-demand film rentals. With such extreme circumstances and high stakes, this could change the movie industry for the foreseeable future.

And for those who think the digital world is relegated to tech-savvy youngins, think again. Even tech-reluctant Baby Boomers have embraced their new digital reality, adopting grocery shopping and food delivery (courtesy of services like Instacart, Postmates, and DoorDash), financial services, and healthcare (many have had their first tele-medical experience), Zoom family visits, and even leisurely activities (virtual Bridge, anyone?) – all online.

As a result, in 2021 there will be no such thing as too much bandwidth to the home.

2. A lasting sanitation standard.

If you have ventured to a store during the pandemic, you have likely noticed sanitizer stations at the entrance; shop employees cleaning carts, baskets, and other high-touch areas; autonomous floor scrubbers in the aisles along with 6-foot markers; and a slew of other health and safety precautions. Even in a post-COVID world, we believe heightened cleanliness and sanitation will remain an expectation among in-store shoppers, particularly for grocery stores.

Then there is the airline industry, which has invested in a variety of protocols to make it seemingly safer to fly for hours, albeit masked, in an airplane. These include air-scrubbing technology for ventilation systems; heavy-duty disinfecting; spacing out passengers during boarding, the flight, and deplaning; and strict face mask enforcement. We even saw a first-of-its-kind partnership between United Airlines and Clorox, extolling their commitment to healthier and safer air travel through amenities and the use of Clorox products in several of United’s travel hubs.

Now for hotels…Think you’ll never look at the coffee pot in your hotel room the same? What about light switches and the infamous tv remote, which has been reported to contain more germs than a toilet? What if it was wrapped in plastic with a seal indicating it had been sanitized? There are opportunities for hotels to step up their game when it comes to sanitizing. The question is, how long can/will businesses sustain the increased expenses related to enhanced cleaning? Will they pass these costs on to consumers or absorb them? We believe big players will want to truly differentiate themselves with a commitment to the health of their customers and will be repaid by increased brand loyalty.

3. The new virtual office.

In 2020, many employees got a taste of how possible it is to work effectively and undistracted from the comfort of home (those with young children distance learning an obvious exception). With renewed shelter-in-place mandates in many parts of the country, working from home will continue in the new year. But even if staff do return to an office, we anticipate increased employee expectations around work-life balance and a likely backlash against long commutes. Jobs that don’t require much in-person facetime to be highly productive will allow employees to seek jobs closer to where they live – and attract remote talent from farther afield – making businesses more geographically dispersed.

On the flip side, businesses in a variety of industries are debating the need for physical office spaces and mulling over the attractive cost-savings related to closing them. Why have an office footprint if employees have no reason to ever come back to the office 4 to 5 days per week? Why hire talent in locales with high costs of living, requiring more competitive salaries? In Glass Half Full: Driving Business in the New Virtual Environment, we discuss the benefits of embracing virtualization. With the availability of tools that successfully measure productivity, there is no reason for many companies to not embrace the new virtual office.

As a quick side benefit, virtualization also brings with it the flexibility to deploy employees to geographic areas to – among other things – drum up business. As an example, I was able to spend two months this summer working from the Middle East. This time overseas allowed me to develop existing relationships, explore new ones, and, with few personal distractions, enabled me to be highly productive.

***

There is no downplaying the havoc the pandemic has wreaked on lives and businesses. Our heart goes out to all those impacted. If there is a silver lining, however, it has been witnessing rapid innovations in technology, the adaptability of businesses, and flexibility among both employees and employers to survive and thrive during these tumultuous, and yes, unprecedented times.


Richard Berger is a Partner with HighPoint Associates and runs the firm’s East Coast office. He joined HighPoint in 2008 and since has worked with clients across industries to solve problems, elevate conversations, and deliver breakthrough results. Prior to joining HPA, Richard spent nearly 20 years in a variety of consulting, operating, and start-up leadership positions. Richard is particularly passionate about helping clients improve and differentiate the customer experience.