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Streaming, shopping and delivery: Why COVID may have changed our habits forever

The pandemic made subscription services like grocery delivery and streaming part of daily life. We examine what's changed and what it means for the future.

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About a year ago, life as we knew it changed when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the US.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

This story is part of a series on life one year into the pandemic. Make sure to read part one: Zoom anxiety is still a major problem, one year into the pandemic, and part two: Zoom anxiety is real. Here's how to combat it.


A year of the pandemic has made grocery delivery and pickup services the new normal for Morgan Haynes, a life claims analyst from Elizabethtown, Kentucky. 

"I haven't shopped in a store in months," Haynes said. And she's far from the only one. 

COVID-19 turned everyday life upside down over the past year, bringing with it quarantines and lockdowns, social distancing, remote work, travel restrictions, shuttered businesses and mask mandates. To combat the virus, more people started staying home, as almost every outing was canceled or limited -- from mundane shopping trips to eating in restaurants to seeing movies in theaters. As a result, services like grocery and restaurant delivery, online shopping memberships and TV and movie streaming services have surged in popularity. 

Services like these may have flourished in the pandemic, but they could become our new way of life -- even in a post-vaccine world.

Groceries, takeout and streaming, oh my

For many, venturing out to stores became a source of panic, uncertainty and stress at the onset of the pandemic -- especially with no guarantee that the items you'd need would be in stock. Signing up with a store's app to use grocery delivery and pickup saw a big spike during the pandemic. As a result, Walmart, Kroger, Amazon, Instacart and others upped their pickup and delivery service game, seeking to help shoppers get necessary items as safely as possible. 

In July, data analytics company Inmar Intelligence studied more than 300 people and their habits during the pandemic, and spotted significant changes in shopping behavior. Since last March, 79% of the polled participants said they now shop for groceries online, compared with 57% before the pandemic.

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Many have chosen to forgo grocery stores and subscribe to delivery services instead.

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In addition, 33% of shoppers reported having groceries delivered, 29% are using grocery pickup and 7% are having groceries shipped to their homes. Amid the pandemic, 12% of shoppers tried out grocery delivery or grocery shipments for the first time. 

Alcohol delivery services like Drizley also saw a massive spike in the early months COVID-19's spread. The same was true of food delivery apps that provided a safe way for people to order takeout from their favorite restaurants that may have closed their doors to indoor dining. Revenue for the top four delivery apps -- DoorDash, Uber Eats, Grubhub and Postmates -- rose by $3 billion in the second and third quarters of 2020. Despite the high fees levied on restaurants by the apps -- typically between 15% and 30% of the total order price -- many restaurants still take part to access their millions of users. 

As COVID-19 shuttered movie theaters and productions, Hollywood sometimes turned to streaming services to release new films. Big-budget movies including the filmed version of Broadway smash Hamilton and the live-action remake of Mulan hit Disney Plus, the latter with an additional rental fee. The Oscar-nominated Nomadland premiered on Hulu, and HBO Max will release Warner Bros. movies on the platform the same day as theaters for 2021, including major titles like Dune and The Matrix 4.

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With movie theaters closed, streaming services stepped into the gap.

Sarah Tew/CNET

"For many, the only escape found [during the pandemic] was TV," said Aaron Annas, director of television and film arts at Buffalo State College. "For those with internet access, subscribing to streaming content immediately opened the door to new entertainment options that could be experienced in quarantine and discussed socially through social media and video conferencing.  What we were streaming became our common language." 

Indeed, by August 2020, streaming videos accounted for a quarter of total TV viewing time, according to Nielsen data. The weekly time spent streaming content clocked in at 142.5 billion minutes -- a 75% increase from 2019. As of September, 25% of adults had added a streaming video service in the three months prior, according to another Nielsen survey. Only 2% of adults said they had gotten rid of any paid subscription services.

"We preorder movies now," said Elisabeth Andrade, a Tennessee resident. "Even if they're showing a movie at the theater, we will pay the crazy amount to rent it and watch it at home. Not because of COVID, but with kids it just makes sense. Everyone can be comfortable and they can talk and play without disturbing anyone."

Will we ever return to stores, restaurants and movies?

People are no longer casually engaging with services like grocery delivery and streaming movies at home -- due to the pandemic, they're all in, said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. 

"I don't think we're going to revert back to what we were doing a year and a half ago," Cohen said. "The changes we're living with are going to be lasting. Retail was in a consequential disruption before the pandemic. The pandemic has caused an incredible step up for that disruption to continue."

While people will likely return to supermarkets, they may stick to Amazon and other online retailers for other shopping, Cohen said, "now that they've discovered they [can shop] with a couple of keystrokes and it's on their doorstep in a couple hours." 

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Food delivery apps also came in handy with many restaurants shuttered as well.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The media landscape might also be entirely changed, especially for the 18- to 21-year-old age bracket, Annas said. This age group is almost completely disinterested in cable, he added.

"They are subscribing to streaming platforms based on what their circle likes to consume," Annas said. "This isn't something I expect them to grow out of.  I believe the current generation stepping into adulthood will have streaming media replace traditional cable."

Once COVID-19 is contained -- when it's similar to catching the common cold perhaps -- the freedom of so many alternatives for shopping, ordering and streaming won't be easily abandoned by consumers, Cohen said. On top of more options online, there's also the ease of accessing those options from the comfort of home -- even with the desire to get out of the house.

At that point, people will likely start to reevaluate the services they've used over the past year, to figure out which subscriptions they really enjoyed and want to keep, versus which make sense in the present. For example, clothing subscription boxes like Stitch Fix might suffer if people continue working from home in more casual clothes, Cohen said. 

Haynes, who hasn't been in a store in months, isn't eager to return. 

"I'll likely go out to stores I enjoy browsing in, but I doubt I'll go back regular grocery shopping. It's just too convenient," she said. "At the end of the day, I'll pay a little more to have it delivered so I can spend some extra time with my daughter at home than spend 2 hours at the grocery store, shopping."

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