The Pandemic is a Digital Accelerant

COVID-19 dramatically changed daily life, but it's not the cause of digital adoption. It’s an opportunity to embrace a digital-first world.

When state leaders issued stay-at-home orders beginning in March, society transitioned from an in-person real world to a virtual world seemingly overnight. Now, classrooms are online, telemedicine is widely accepted, and otherwise slow adopters are born-again digital natives. Without question, the pandemic dramatically changed daily life, but it’s not the cause of digital adoption. It’s simply an unexpected accelerant.  

Predictable E-Commerce Headlines

Headlines on Cyber Monday exclaimed, “Online sales and deliveries expected to break records this holiday season.” Really? Of course they did, and the pandemic isn’t the only reason. While it’s clearly a fact that the pandemic forced more shoppers online, retail e-commerce has grown steadily for over a decade. According to research published by Statista in August 2019, by the year 2024, retail e-commerce in the U.S. is expected to exceed $476 million. With or without COVID-19, online sales in 2020 would break records.

The food industry was also poised to see digital growth before the pandemic. As of August 2019, around 52 percent of grocery stores in the United States offered home delivery or store pick-up options. Also, 25 percent planned to integrate online grocery services in their offerings in the coming year. While COVID-19 may have encouraged unexpected consumer segments, namely Baby Boomers, to adopt online shopping, Gens X, Y, and Z were already on their way to ditching real shopping carts for virtual ones.

Education also was already in the midst of a digital revolution—granted, more for college education than K-12. In recent years, enrollment in online college increased even as college enrollment decreased across the nation. And while K-12 education may never have gone entirely online if not for the pandemic, technology integration and digital lessons were already commonplace, blurring in-person and virtual learning.

Embracing Digital in 2020

Life as we knew it might never return, but it’s not a result of the pandemic alone. It’s us realizing the digital future we were already paving. The eventual lift of social restrictions will allow us to do many of the things we love to do, like dining in restaurants with a group of friends, traveling without restrictions or attending in-person conferences. But digital adoption will continue to grow.

While most of us, myself included, are ready for 2020 and this pandemic to end, perhaps there are some silver linings. As consumers, some of us needed a push to try something new, shop a different way, and utilize the conveniences businesses provide. And perhaps most importantly, the pandemic forced companies to move faster, get with the times, and actually embrace digital as something that is here to stay. That will create ongoing success and opportunities for both companies and consumers. 

Looking Forward

Those who know me know I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. So, here’s my view of the pandemic strictly from a business perspective. While much of the change we experienced in 2020 was uncomfortable and oftentimes frustrating, it also helped us grow as a society. Companies and consumers were forced to adapt to a digital-first world, and now we are all more savvy and confident. Instead of looking back, I’m energized by what lies ahead. Here’s to 2021.