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How the Global Pandemic Will Continue to Change Businesses in 2021

For businesses hit hard by COVID and lockdowns around the world, there are still reasons to stay optimistic. Several vaccines are in third phase clinical trials, and accelerated testing and development may mean we could have a vaccine for COVID as soon as mid-2021.

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The end of the pandemic and an economic recovery, however, aren't in sight just yet. Despite promising results, there's still no COVID-19 vaccine — and we may not have one for a while. Experts predict the general public may not have vaccine access until July or August. That means lockdowns and social distancing will likely stay the norm for a significant portion of 2021, at the least.

While this news isn't the best for many industries, there are still options for businesses trying to stay afloat and adapt to the new normal.

These six industries have seen some of the biggest changes — positive and negative — through the pandemic. This is how the continuing pandemic will change these organizations next year, and how they can adapt and succeed while we prepare for an economic recovery:

1. Retail

Some sectors of the retail industry have done better than others — especially those that had a strong investment in e-commerce before the pandemic. Consumer spending is down, however, meaning that almost every retailer is feeling the pandemic's effects. 

Brick-and-mortar retailers are having the most difficulty. Not all customers are willing to shop in person right now. Same-day pickup options that allow customers to order online and pick up their item in-store — or have it delivered to their car with curbside pickup — encourage consumers to browse and shop, even if they don't want to come in.

Retailers are also seeing big returns on e-commerce spend right now. Any retailer, no matter the size, will probably need to invest in an online storefront and a robust combination of in-store and online offerings to stay competitive next year. 

Effective use of online marketing tools will also be important. For larger businesses, investing in analytics and new marketing tech may help. For smaller companies, even something as simple as knowing how to analyze key Google Analytics metrics may provide valuable insights.

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2. Airlines

Airlines struggled through 2020 as consumer demand for flights dropped off and governments around the world imposed restrictions on air travel.

As with any industry right now, the worst may not be over for airlines. A vaccine and swift economic recovery are the best hope right now for the sector. In the meantime, pushing for government support and offering safe travel to those who are still flying may be the right move for the industry. 

Most airlines have already adopted good in-flight ventilation, which could help prevent or reduce the spread of COVID from an infected passenger. Stressing the steps that the airline is taking to preserve customer health — like full disinfection of planes between flights, mandatory mask-wearing and limited flight capacity — may also help in the short term.

3. Restaurants

Restaurants are often the first sector that comes to mind if you ask someone which industry has had the hardest time during the pandemic. 

The way forward for restaurants in 2021 seems to be the same as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. While some consumers are confident enough to eat out, and many restaurants have re-opened, restaurant attendance is still low, according to data from OpenTable. 

Offerings that let customers patronize a restaurant without dining in — like delivery, contactless pickup methods and online ordering — will likely be essential for any restaurant. 

For those businesses that are set on keeping the house open, practices like spacing out tables, offering outdoor seating, limiting the number of customers in the restaurant and requiring that staff wear masks may help. New tech, like touchless menus that can allow customers to browse and order without touching a menu that other patrons have held, may also help improve restaurant safety and encourage consumers.

Marketing that highlights these offerings and services will probably be essential strategies for welcoming new customers as the pandemic drags on.

Outdoor seating is probably the safest offering for businesses that want to provide dine-in service. However, any outdoor seating setup may require some creativity during the early winter months of next year, when consumers may be less keen on eating outside. 

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4. Food and Beverage

While restaurants have struggled, it hasn't been all bad news in the food industry. Through the middle of 2020, there was a brief grocery store boom as customers rushed to secure staples like toilet paper, rice, beans and meat. 

However, this growth has since slowed down. It's likely that, for now, we've settled into a current pattern — meaning that grocers and food and beverage (F&B) manufacturers will need to find new ways to drive growth. As with retail, offerings that allow customers to shop without coming into the store may help. Other safety practices — like plexiglass shields for cashiers, mask mandates in-store and contactless payment — may also help.

There are also signs that COVID may be accelerating F&B trends that existed before the pandemic — providing businesses with a possible opportunity for investment and growth.

For example, faux meat manufacturers — like Beyond, Impossible and Lightlife — have done remarkably well, despite lower overall demand. Sales of products like Beyond Meat and Tofurkey were up 264% toward the pandemic's early days, when the supply shock caused by a run on grocery stores made meat hard to come by.

Even after meat returned to the shelves, however, plant-based food companies continued doing well. In late September 2020, for example, Walmart announced it would be expanding its 5-year-old partnership with Beyond Meat, tripling national availability of the company's plant-based meat alternatives.

F&B companies that have held off investing in products that were growing in popularity before the pandemic — like organic foods, sustainably grown produce and meat alternatives — may be able to continue growth with renewed investment.

5. Movie Theaters

Movie theaters have struggled for most of the year, with attendance at all-time low levels and some chains shuttering their locations altogether.

While some industry observers had hopes that Christopher Nolan's newest film — one of the first high-profile releases since spring — would drive customers back into movie theaters, the movie's weak performance was more of a sign that few are willing to view a movie in person right now. 

For movie theaters, the best option may be continuing with suspended and limited in-theater showings and finding other ways to meet customer needs for entertainment. Drive-in movies, for example, have seen a minor resurgence over the past few months, likely because they offer the safest movie-viewing experience possible right now. 

Brent Lang, Variety’s executive editor of film and media, said in conversation with two top film critics that it may ultimately be on film studios to prop up the movie theater industry. There are a few major releases expected through the end of 2020 and in early 2021. The best option for theaters may be to find alternative sources of income, scale back operations as needed and take advantage of these releases when possible.

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6. Shipping and Logistics

The supply chain, strained by the early days of COVID, did not break. However, it's still not necessarily in its best shape. The industry, like others, faced low demand and a hard-to-predict market.

Internal forecasts predict the industry will recover rapidly in the second half of 2021, but that businesses in the supply chain will be waiting until the middle of the year at the earliest. As with other industries, recovery is mostly contingent on a vaccine.

The trucking sector has seen a temporary reprieve from its driver shortage during COVID — however, this is likely due to a drop in demand. The underlying causes for the shortage — primarily an aging workforce — haven't gone away, and logistics companies should be ready for those problems to emerge again following recovery.

How Businesses Can Prepare for 2021

Experts in the healthcare industry predict we won't have a vaccine until early next year at the earliest, and that full access to it may take months. Businesses will need to be ready for at least another half-year of lockdowns and social distancing. While this will mean serious pressure on companies that are already struggling, there are steps that businesses in any industry can take to stay afloat.

Offering services and payment options that make shopping or traveling as safe as possible may help. For some businesses, investing in products that are continuing to grow in popularity, despite the pandemic, may offer an opportunity for growth in the first half of 2021.