Twenty ways Covid-19 has changed our daily lives
Pricewatch: Will consumers return to normal or will some new habits endure?
Shoppers return to Dublin city centre. Photograph: Tom Honan
The last four months have seen the greatest upheaval for Irish consumers in modern times. Almost overnight everything changed in the middle of March and it would be hard to overestimate the trauma Covid-19 has inflicted on us all.
Hundreds of thousands of people lost their jobs while many more suddenly had to work from home, frequently in circumstances which were a long way from ideal. Virtually everyone was cut off from friends and family for months while almost every other aspect of normal life that would have been taken for granted at the start of the year was turned on its head.
Social activity stopped, shops – save for those deemed essential – shut, people were told not to move more than 2km from their front doors. And, of course, thousands of people got sick with far too many losing their lives.
The economic consequences of the crisis, meanwhile, have yet to be fully felt.
But maybe today marks something of a watershed with the country set to reopen almost entirely with the lockdown all but ending and people told they have their personal responsibility back. Churches, gyms, cinemas, restaurants, hotels, leisure facilities and hairdressers can all reopen as can museums, galleries, theatres and concert halls. All sporting activity can resume while the shops that have not yet reopened can do so now.
But how has Covid-19 changed us as consumers and will those changes endure? Without an effective crystal ball it is hard to answer the second part of that question but the first part can is easier and here are just some of the ways our consuming world has changed.
1. The pandemic caused a “work from home” experiment so all encompassing that it would have been unimaginable had it not actually just happened. For many that experiment has turned out just fine. People have managed to work out new – and arguably more efficient – ways to get things done. Meetings have been faster and less frequent, day-to-day costs have fallen and all that time wasted commuting to and from offices has been better spent sleeping, eating, exercising, mindlessly scrolling through Twitter, playing with children and – sometimes – even working. People fortunate enough to live in areas served with decent broadband and to have jobs that could be done remotely were able to prove that “working from home” is not the universal code for being on the doss that management feared it might be. It has also become clear that the infrastructure that we have – in many but not all parts of the country – can deal with hundreds of thousands of people logging on from their couches at the same time. Does that mean we have seen the end of rush hour? We can only hope.
2. Public transport has changed and the need for social distancing has meant buses, trains and trams have all had their capacity reduce over recent months. While companies have kept the show on the road they have been ferrying less than one-fifth of the passengers they otherwise might have. Many people are still very concerned about infection and can’t imagine travelling on packed public transport alongside all those people coughing and sweating on them while the very idea of standing room only seems very far removed from where most people are today. That is not to write off public transport. It is still among the most environmentally friendly ways of getting from A to B.
3. It is not, however, the most environmentally friendly way of travelling. One of the really big winners – if that is the right word – of the pandemic has been the bicycle. With public transport options limited and unappealing, people who had not considered hopping on a bike since God was a child have been seen zipping about the place on two wheels. Cycle lanes that the authorities would have hummed and hawed about for years were laid down in days as towns and cities started looking at ways in which cyclists could be prioritised over cars.
4. If there was one thing Irish people were bad at pre-Covid, it was forming an orderly queue. Instead of calming waiting in line in pubs and at bus stops or boarding gates or shops, we loved nothing more than a good mill. We’d all crowd around the epicentre of whatever activity was happening like drunken ants before forming an unseemly huddle once the waiting was nearly over. All that milling and crowding has disappeared and we have become a nation of compliant queuers who are willing – if not necessarily happy – to keep our distance and wait our turn.
5. The sight of people wearing masks is now common – although many people would argue it is not common enough. Mask wearing has been something of a slow burn with the advice from official sources confusing sometimes but the number wearing face masks has definitely increased in the last couple of weeks even if many face mask wearers clearly have no idea how to wear them or what they are actually for. At least half the people Pricewatch has seen wearing face masks in the last week have been protecting nothing more than the underside of their chin and there are also many who don’t realise the nose is actually part of the face and a part that needs to be covered. Then there is the cohort that think nothing of putting the masks on and off repeatedly over the course of a day despite the fact that almost as soon as you bring your unclean hand to your face you are compromising the mask.
6. Has anything changed as much as shopping, in all its forms? What was once Ireland’s most popular leisure pursuit became something approached with fear. While recent weeks have probably been heartening for many in the sector with queues forming outside many shops as they reopened, most analysts and experts believe it will take a long time before retail returns to normal, if it ever does. There have been die-hard shoppers who have braved towns, cities, shopping centres and retail parks in recent weeks but the numbers are significantly down on what they once were. It is anticipated that footfall will be down across the country by at least 30 per cent this year and possibly a whole lot more than that.
7. It is not only fear that has kept some people away from the shops. There are also people who have come to realise that shopping is a habit and sometimes an unnecessary one. According to behavourial boffins, it takes 66 days to form a habit and as many shops were closed for longer than that some people who would have described themselves as keen shoppers have lost at least some of the desire to acquire stuff. Has the rampant consumerism that was part of our collective psyche been turned off – or at least dialed down? Time will tell.
8. Supermarket shopping has changed too and the signs are that many of the newly acquired habits we have will endure. People don’t tend to shop in groups and impulse buy less. Having said that the spend in supermarkets has climbed significantly in recent months. People are buying less processed food and working out how to make stuff themselves. Almost four months into the crisis and the baking aisles in Irish supermarkets are still frequently stripped of the things that few people would have shown much interest in as the new year dawned. The move to supporting local shops and the manner in which they pivoted almost overnight to offer online shopping and click-and-collect services has been heartening. We can only hope consumers will reward the local businesses who were there for them in the hard times with their loyalty when things get better.
9. There is still much confusion about how restaurants and pubs will operate. How long will people actually be able to linger? Who can sit beside who? Will people want to eat out now that they have discovered the joys of restaurant meals at home? We’re not talking takeaways in the traditional sense but the fine-dining kits that people have been able to order to their homes before assembling them. Who knew they would be ever be a thing?
10. By far the single biggest cause of concern to readers of this page in recent months was how the crisis had impacted the sometimes hideously expensive holidays they had planned and paid for. There were companies who supported their customers and did what they could to help them out but then there were others who clearly didn’t give a rashers and fought tooth and nail to keep all the money people had given them for services they could not provide. There were companies and airlines issuing vouchers instead of refunds and acting contrary to the law and airlines flying ghost flights as their passengers were legally prevented from boarding the planes. Then there were the travel businesses who simply went to ground and refused to answer queries. Trust has been breached in many cases. How long it will take to be repaired is still up in the air.
11. Closer to home, there have been few areas hit as hard by the pandemic as the hospitality sector. Today, many bars and restaurants will open their doors for the first time since March but anyone expecting the experience to be what it was is likely to be in for a shock. New guidelines have put in place time limits on how long people will be able to linger and how close they will be able to get to each other along with a long list of other measures. It is too early to say what impact that will have on the experience of going out but – at least until things settle down – it is unlikely to be brilliant. There are likely to be more Irish people holidaying in Ireland this summer than at any point since the 1980s when only the most well heeled folk were able to board planes and jet off to the sun. It is up to the Irish tourism sector to make the experience as nice as it can be and if they do it right they might have a captive and loyal local market for many years to come.
12. When hardware stores were allowed to reopen several weeks ago the queues for many such places went around the block as frustrated people lined up to replenish the DIY stocks that had been depleted by weeks of frenzied activity in the absence of anything else to be doing. With time on their hands and time in their homes there were a lot of people who embarked upon spring cleans which turned into summer cleans. Homes were Marie Kondo-ed to within an inch of their lives.
13. Let’s be honest, before all this the thing that would have come to mind when you hear the word Zoom was either go-faster stripes or Fat Larry and his band if you are of a certain age. But as a result of the lockdown everyone suddenly became intimately acquainted with the video conferencing technology with, truth be told, mixed results. Were in not for such technology would we have ever seen Luke “Ming” Flanagan in his pants? Would we have spent all that time wondering if people could not hear us or were just bored by what we had to say? Would we have had the chance to stare gormlessly at the bookshelves of our co-workers and friends? Would we have had remote table quizzes and virtual parties? With gyms and yoga studios all closed it has been heartening to see how many teachers and instructors took to the internet to give classes of varying lengths and intensity. While a gym class in your livingroom may not be as invigorating as one in a studio surrounded by like-minded folk, it was better than nothing.
14. The manner in which people started using unfamiliar technology to spend quality time with their friends and family has been impressive and now digital platforms are central to many people’s lives.
15. Education changed dramatically and while parents, pupils and teachers are probably longing to go back to school, remote learning will not go away and there is likely to be blended learning across many environments. Parents have also become more relaxed about their children’s screen times as Google Classroom and Seesaw have proved invaluable when it comes to homeschooling. Whether or not that is a good thing in the longer term remains to be seen.
16. A visit to a GP’s surgery was either impossible or too daunting for many to contemplate over recent months. That is likely to see an acceleration of remote visits and the use of digital health tools from assessment services to telemedicine. We have also seen an acceleration of deliveries and online ordering from pharmacies.
17. Streaming services: The number of people over the age of 60 who watched online streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and various players climbed by 15 per cent during the early stages of the coronavirus lockdown up to the end of March, according to the most recent figures from Central Statistics Office. There have also been significant increases, however, in online spending on gaming ad electronics. Subscriptions to streaming services such as Netflix are up almost 30 per cent while PlayStation spend climbed by 122 per cent with the Xbox seeing an 86 per cent bounce.
18. With the pubs closed people started drinking at home more and according to figures from the Economic and Social Research Institute spending almost twice as much on drinking at home in a pandemic week versus a normal week. It put the numbers at €21 versus €11 normally. When all pubs do reopen in a socially distanced sense it remains to be seen how attractive they will be.
19. The sums taken from ATMs fell by almost two-thirds during the crisis as people moved to contactless and cashless payments. With many retailers – including giants such as Ikea – reluctant to handle cash at all and the contactless limits climbing from €30-€50, the days of cash being king appear to be numbered.
20. We have heard countless stories of neighbours looking our for each other in recent weeks. Younger people did the shopping for older ones, people gathered on their streets and in the flat complexes for socially distanced bingo sessions. Then there were the teddy bears that appeared in windows as people sought ways to cheer others up and tell them that we were all in this together. We still are even if the country is hopefully well on the road to getting back to normal, whatever it looks like.