woman using mirror for home exercise
Health has emerged as a key focus for consumers readjusting to their “new normal,” and experts say consumers’ approach to fitness and overall wellness may be permanently altered. — Mirror

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken up nearly every consumer category, influencing new consumer behaviors, stifling entire industries and inspiring growth in others, including pockets of the health sector.

The health and wellness industry, already a booming $4.5 trillion business, has seen particularly marked change as housebound consumers adapt to life without gyms, fitness studios or easily accessible doctors’ offices, and reconsider overall what it means to be well in the age of a pandemic.

These new behaviors rely on the power of the internet to maintain human connection and interaction. As consumers comply with social distancing recommendations, the home has become the central stage for everything from eating and socializing to working and working out.

To keep non-COVID-19 patients out of hospitals and doctors’ offices, for one, doctor visits have moved online. Indeed, telemedicine and home fitness have been two of the obvious beneficiaries of these shifts, with companies from Doctor on Demandto Peloton, respectively, well-positioned amid the crisis.

Meanwhile, companies running once high-touch operations have found creative ways to bring business online and into customers’ homes.

Health has emerged as a key focus for consumers readjusting to their “new normal.” And after months of social distancing, consumers’ approach to fitness and overall wellness may be permanently altered, experts said.

While "billions will be lost in the wellness industry in 2020 because of months of shuttered brick-and-mortar businesses,” said Beth McGroarty, vice president of research for the Global Wellness Institute, “at the big-picture, long-term level, the case for the wellness concept and wellness markets post-pandemic looks very bullish."

 screen shots of calm meditation app
The wellness culture is predicted to grow to include more everyday activities, like walking outside or meditating, often with the aid of tools like meditation app Calm. — Calm

Pre-pandemic wellness and the rise of preventative healthcare disruptors

Pre-pandemic, wellness was already emerging as the biggest consumer spending opportunity in decades, Wendy Liebmann, CEO of WSL Strategic Retail, told CO—. “We’ve been seeing this growth since 2014 [in] what we call the move from ‘sick care’ to ‘well care.’” According to WSL’s 2019 How America Shops study, 73% of the U.S. population said it was engaged in some aspect of living well, from healthier eating and meditation to stress reduction and fitness.

“Even before the pandemic, many people around the U.S. were beginning to dabble in proactive and preventative health and wellness practices,” Liebmann said. “What this pandemic has revealed is that taking care and control of your own health — individual, family, home, etc. — is even more critical than before.”

Enabled by the internet, startups like 98point6, Plushcare, Maven and the like sprung up to deliver a more convenient and accessible means of seeing a primary care provider. According to Liebmann, this taking control over one’s own health, combined with flagging consumer trust in many industries, gives self-service options like digital healthcare and at-home self-testing “every reason to grow,” and the data so far confirms her prediction.

According to a recent McKinsey survey, consumer adoption of telehealth soared from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 epidemic. McKinsey also estimates that virtual healthcare has the opportunity to represent up to $250 billion in healthcare spending.

Jemma Shin, consumer insight strategist with trend forecasting firm WGSN, said the rise of preventative care has the effect of making “well-care” more accessible to all. “Going forward, opportunities will continue to emerge around telehealth, putting people in increased control of their own well-being,” she told CO—. “More services will become democratized through digitized and affordable models.”

As people work from home in unprecedented numbers, more consumers will incorporate new practices for both self-care and cleaning into their personal spaces. To that end, “All kinds of ‘functional wellness’ will be added to homes,” McGroarty said, reflecting consumers’ interest in protection from electromagnetic pollution like cell phones to circadian lighting that mirrors the natural sleep/wake cycles of the human body.

"Home has turned into a sanctuary,” said Shin. “It’s also turned into a wellness hub, where people build their self-care routines and find simple joy in their everyday lives.”

What this pandemic has revealed is that taking care and control of your own health — individual, family, home, etc. — is even more critical than before.

Wendy Liebmann, CEO, WSL Strategic Retail

Remote-work boom drives home-fitness boom

As consumers continue to telework, home fitness has become an especially notable business opportunity, with online sales of home gym equipment skyrocketing along with that of toilet paper and other essentials.

After stumbling through its IPO last year, Peloton saw its first quarter revenue soar as the virus spread and consumers sheltered in place, surging 66% from the same period in 2019.

Yoga retailer Lululemon’s recent $500 million acquisition of home workout smart mirror company, Mirror, signals that wellness’ major players are getting into the game as well.

Meanwhile, more traditional brick-and-mortar fitness companies such as Crunch and Barry’s now offer a wide variety of classes via Instagram Live, said Shin, noting social media’s ability to help blur the line between physical and digital activity. In addition, boutique fitness chains Equinox and SoulCycleare moving members online with dedicated home bikes and virtual classes.

The question then becomes: Is this growth of digital fitness platforms sustainable, or will consumers return to the gym as soon as they’re able? “The post-virus wellness future will be a ‘hybrid’ approach for many more people,” McGroarty predicts, with consumers making selective trips to gyms, fitness studios or businesses they trust, but otherwise keeping much of their activity online.

Prior to COVID-19, digital/in-home fitness platforms like Peloton and Mirror were already gaining market and under the pandemic, “this trend has radically ratcheted up, putting them in a stronger position post-crisis,” she said.

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Community and the democracy of health

As wellness becomes increasingly homebound, it’s also become more accessible to more people, and expanded consumers’ ideas of “wellness” to include mental health, community and preventative lifestyle changes.

“Before the virus, the wellness industry was rightly accused of a too-myopic focus on the wealthy,” McGroarty said. “In the future, I believe more people will reject super-elitist, absurdly expensive wellness experiences and products. Wellness in general will become more important in people’s lives — and command a bigger share of wallet, even if the wallet has shrunk.”

WGSN’s Shin believes this democratizing effect will only grow as consumers reprioritize the needs of their own families and communities. "Since the coronavirus outbreak, people are increasingly shifting focus from ‘me’ to ‘we,’ looking at ways to tackle their anxiety with acts of kindness and compassion,” she said. “As a result, the wellness industry is now looking beyond how the individual feels and towards how they exist in a society.”

McGroarty predicts that wellness culture will grow to include more everyday, rather than aspirational, activities, such as walking outside or meditating, often with the aid of tools like meditation app Calm, or therapy apps like TalkSpaceor BetterHelp. “Mental wellness and meditation app companies are going to be in a much better position financially post-pandemic,” she said, “and will invest in bold new directions and platforms.”

 screenshot of plushcare telehealth service
According to a recent McKinsey survey, consumer adoption of telehealth soared from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020, largely due to the COVID-19 epidemic. — PlushCare

What the future holds for wellness

Companies in sectors like telehealth and home fitness have made invaluable gains in mindshare throughout the pandemic, shaping the future of consumer behavior and the wellness sector.

“Most of the behaviors that we see remaining will be those that were already ingrained or beginning to be pre-COVID,” Liebmann said. For example, the redefining of a healthy lifestyle to include financial, emotional and intellectual wellness will continue, and it will inform behaviors related to sustainability and the environment as well, she said.

Driven less by celebrity trends and influencers, post-pandemic wellness culture will likely center around self-examination and -improvement, and digitally enabled well-being, said Shin. “The democratization of wellness will also come to the fore, with more people seeking brands that make health and fitness more accessible, especially for marginalized communities.”

However, as virtual health and fitness becomes the “new normal,” the same competition that powered growth of the wellness industry will shape the options consumers face.

“The digital fitness and wellness space will get even more crowded during and after COVID,” McGroarty said. “Affordable options will really matter. And the virus has shown the power of how even one yoga teacher can create audiences of millions using Zoom at home.”

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Published August 11, 2020