Scan the business landscape and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an industry unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Social distancing rules, safety concerns, and increasing costs have businesses scrambling to accommodate customers. Many industries that traditionally clung to analog processes have been forced to turn to digital options to survive and thrive.
Here are 10 of the top traditionally-offline industries finding success in pivoting to online formats:
Educational institutions stumbled through distance learning at the start of the pandemic. Most have started the 2020-2021 school year offering a combination of virtual-only, in-person, and hybrid classes. Time will tell if the seesaw tips more toward remote learning—the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, began with in-person classes but within 1 week reverted to online-only learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
While there are pros and cons to distance learning, it’s here to stay in some form as the traditional education model shifts. Students who succeed with remote learning will expect more of the same in the future and may push for educational options that offer intercollegiate course offerings. Schools facing severe budget cuts may find that distance learning reduces the money needed to maintain physical classrooms.
Pandemic closures forced changes across the entertainment industry—especially for those whose business model depended on the physical presence of fans being physically present.
With movie theaters closed, the film industry delayed the release dates for some films while releasing other films, including Disney’s Mulan, on direct-to-digital channels. Behind the scenes, the entire process of film production is now viewed through a “what can be done remotely” lens, as crews face challenges with traveling to sets, shooting crowds or close-contact scenes, and collaborating on scene edits.
Small-time bands like Scythian that used to sell out smaller venues have turned to online streaming and virtual tip-jars. Even high-profile musicians like Tim McGraw have sold tickets to online streaming concerts. In the long term, there may be a hybrid approach to concert tours—most artists and fans want the energy and noise of a concert, but some fans may be willing to pay a premium for a physically-distanced experience.
Virtual conferences have many benefits, including lower costs and wider audience reach. With a broader participant pool (geography and time zones are irrelevant) and overall reduced costs (no need to pay for event space or chair rentals), small business owners may wish to capitalize on this market.
Even smaller events such as annual meetings or local networking groups are turning to online options. That monthly meetup of professionals at your local coworking space has converted to livestreaming and a bring-your-own-snack mentality.
When physical bank branches closed, their digital offerings (or lack thereof) took center stage. Customers embraced digital and mobile options. Banks, traditionally slow to change, found that manual processes like loan approvals wouldn’t work in the online world.
And small business owners seeking PPP loans often discovered that their local banks couldn’t help them—either the bank did not offer PPP loans or they’d already earmarked their favorite customers for approval. Online lending marketplaces like Lendio stepped in to provide options outside of small business owners’ geographical areas.
With gyms shuttered, consumers turned to online fitness options. According to McKinsey, the “US online fitness market has seen approximately 50% growth in its consumer base since February 2020.”
Yoga studios have changed in-person classes to live-streaming sessions. Personal trainers have created workout schedules for their clients to do at home and, for an additional fee, offered virtual coaching via Skype. Even major races like the New York City Marathon have converted to virtual options.
Due to the pandemic, the use of telehealth has skyrocketed. Private practices that previously may have considered adopting telehealth jumped on the bandwagon to protect their staff and patients. Modifications to government regulations, including changes to HIPAA and Medicare rules, have allowed telehealth to be more widely adopted.
Other pieces of the healthcare puzzle are evolving to include online options, too. Wearable devices provide remote monitoring and reporting of vital signs. Social listening apps identify virus breakouts, and AI software (via chatbots) provides first-level triage to free up doctors’ time.
Telehealth isn’t just for humans—many veterinarians began offering it once the FDA modified regulations that had required in-person animal exams.
Traditionally, potential buyers want to walk through a prospective new home to plan where their loveseat will fit. Photos and, occasionally, videos were available online to allow a buyer to rule out properties from the comfort of their own couch, but in-person tours were the overall norm.
When COVID-19 safety concerns hit, the desire for digital home-buying tours exploded. Even though most states classified real estate services as essential, buyers and sellers alike wanted online viewing options. Some agents provided an alternate version of a digital tour by opening a FaceTime session with the buyer and following “show me this next” directions. Digital tours, according to a University of Iowa study, often result in a house selling for 2–3% more than a house without an online tour.
Religious organizations pivoted to offer services via online broadcasts. Similar to how healthcare laws shifted to permit telehealth service, some religious rules had to be altered as well. For example, Jewish law requires 10 adults to be in the same physical space to allow for public prayer, but the Rabbinical Assembly has provided guidance for virtual equivalents during the pandemic.
Faith-based organizations may find value in keeping some of their online offerings post-pandemic. Carey Nieuwhof, a pastor, author, and public speaker, suggests that digital content allows churches to engage more people. For example, a teenager may listen to a short podcast versus attending an early morning session. And an online sermon could expand a church’s member list to include church-surfers—people looking for inspiration from multiple sources.
Digital options became a lifeline for restaurants during the pandemic. With dine-in services closed for months, restaurants have focused on technology to survive. Electronic menus have reduced the burden of making regular changes to accommodate supplier issues or offer new items like family-size meals. Contactless payment systems have helped to reduce touchpoints. Online ordering is now a must—and even when it’s safe to fully reopen, many customers will want to continue the convenience of carry-out.
Without a doubt, the pandemic has altered the retail landscape. When stores closed, consumers flocked to online buying. Many shoppers have continued with their new behaviors, like using buy online, pick-up in store (BOPIS) or home delivery, even as brick-and-mortar stores reopen.
In-person retailers that implemented online stores altered offline services to fit their online equivalents. For example, bookstores switched in-store author readings to online storytimes instead. In the clothing industry, digital concierges have replaced the sales associate who brought new items to the fitting room.
Converting any business to include online offerings takes time and money to purchase equipment, retrain employees, and implement process changes. The need or desire for in-person services won’t completely disappear, but most industries can reduce costs or expand their market by going digital.