Woman working from home using a standing desk and a treadmill.
Self-care and working from home are two top trends that emerged during the COVID-19 pandemic and various retailer data show both are here to stay. — Getty Images/martin-dm

Why it matters:

  • The work-from-home trend appears to be here to stay: More than two years after COVID upended our daily routines, the average office occupancy rate in 10 major U.S. metro areas was just 44%, down from 95% pre-pandemic.
  • At the same time, consumers have prioritized self-care amid the pandemic, giving rise to the growth of the $44.5 trillion global wellness market. Against that backdrop, mental health services are turning up in new spaces, such as Walmart Health Centers, where shoppers can book a session with a behavioral health counselor.
  • To monetize the remote work trend, home furnishings retailers like Lowe’s and Williams-Sonoma are tapping strategies that include enhancing their digital businesses with curated content and offering home design classes.

Brands are tapping consumers’ pandemic-altered lifestyles and psyches to unlock growth opportunities birthed by the remote work and self-care trends.

In some cases, they’re eyeing fresh business niches in a COVID-altered consumer landscape, testing the elasticity of their brand identities along the way — from Walmart tiptoeing into mental health services to Lowe’s spreading its wings beyond the nuts and bolts of home improvement into home décor and design.

The moves mark the convergence of intrinsically linked trends, as the pandemic pushed both remote work and the wellness economy, now a $4.5 trillion global business, into high-gear.

“The work from home trend has a direct impact on self-care,” Allyson Rees, Senior Strategist with trend forecasting firm, WGSN, told CO—. “Working from home allows consumers more time for themselves.

Without a commute, they're able to take back that time to exercise, meditate, read the newspaper — what a concept — or spend more time with their family. It allows them to prioritize ‘me time’ in a way that benefits work/life balance."

The ‘caring economy’ takes on newfound resonance: therapy sessions via Walmart to ‘intentional communities’ that sell products for consumers facing health issues

The caring economy, whereby brands embed a caring element into the purchasing experience — like enabling shoppers to donate to a charity in the checkout aisle, and where “kindness becomes a currency in its own right,” according to trend-forecasting firm WGSN, is nothing new.

But it’s taken on greater meaning post-pandemic, particularly in the mental health space, as wellness became a major preoccupation for consumers.

As doctor visits moved online when the nation sheltered in place, telemedicine sprung from the margins to the mainstream, and teletherapy was no exception.

In turn, mental health services have been turning up in some untraditional spaces, ranging from fast-growing digital therapy apps like Talkspace to Walmart’s new Health Centers.

“The idea of getting therapy is much more normalized, and the pandemic has made consumers more open about their struggles,” Rees said. “So it makes sense that Walmart would tap into that.”

Walmart effectively entered the teletherapy business with its acquisition last year of telehealth business MeMD.

Then, this spring, it expanded its Florida-based Health Center format to five locations, where behavioral health counseling is offered along with services including primary care and dental care.

“For so many communities in the U.S., Walmart is their Main Street, the hub of town, it’s the watering hole,” Rees said. The nation’s largest retailer is already a destination for millions of consumers’ everyday needs, so the sheer convenience of its ubiquitous stores potentially blunts “one the big barriers to getting therapy — getting in the car and going there,” she said.

The work from home trend has a direct impact on self-care. Working from home allows consumers more time for themselves. Without a commute, they're able to take back that time to exercise, meditate, read the newspaper — what a concept — or spend more time with their family. It allows them to prioritize ‘me time’ in a way that benefits work/life balance.

Allyson Rees, Senior Strategist, WGSN

While Rees sees teletherapy as a bigger opportunity for Walmart than in-store counseling, and it remains to be seen if the services become a meaningful part of the retailer’s business, the push is about “creating a deeper connection with consumers,” she said.

What’s more, there’s a potential opportunity to offer shoppers a “joined up experience. Shoppers can make a purchase that aligns with what they talked about in their session,” like snapping up St. John’s Wort if they’re having sleep issues, she said.

Therapy sessions at a discount store would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But in a post-COVID landscape, consumerism and well-being are evermore linked, just as pandemic-changed shoppers increasingly consider health when making purchasing decisions.

In the beauty industry, for example, marketers From CVS to startups like Selfmade are taking on mental health issues, developing products and marketing campaigns that espouse more inclusive and authentic representations of beauty, even partnering with mental health experts on products and programming.

The shift has given rise to what Rees calls “intentional communities”—like the C-List, which bills itself as the world’s first beauty platform for people with cancer, and where one can shop for products recommended during chemotherapy treatment, for example; and Mayv, an online shopping destination for chronic pain sufferers. These platforms are rewriting the narrative of chronic illnesses and health issues and “building a business around it,” Rees said. “Consumers in these communities are extremely engaged, so there’s an opportunity for brands to make an impact.”

[Read: Mental Health in the Workplace: Headspace Health, Talkspace and Noom Target Employee Support Programs to Drive Growth]

Williams-Sonoma and Lowe’s monetize the work-from-home trend: ‘Pre-pandemic, who would have thought to get cute, on-trend décor at Lowe’s?’

As consumers leaned into self-care amid an unprecedented health crisis, the pandemic turned remote work, which was bubbling pre-COVID, from a trend into a lifestyle shift.

More than two years after COVID upended our daily routines, the average office occupancy rate in 10 major U.S. metro areas was just 44%, down from 95% pre-pandemic, according to Kastle, which operates security systems in U.S. office buildings.

As employers in a tight labor market seek to retain workers emboldened by new expectations for flexibility in how and when they do their jobs, home retailers are benefiting from the trend.

Furniture and home appliance sales exceeded $427 billion in 2021, up 30.3% from 2019 pre-pandemic, according to the Cowen report, The Consumer After COVID, citing Bureau of Economic statistics.

The work-from-home trend is “redefining how individuals think about the home,” Max Rakhlenko, Director of Retail and Fitness for investment bank Cowen, told CO—. The home is having a greater importance in people’s lives and individuals are really prioritizing where they live and will likely invest more in their homes than they have in the past.”

He’s bullish on the trend continuing, based on Cowen’s monthly survey of 2,500 consumers: Respondents expect to work from home more often in the future, the survey revealed, with those in the 18-to-34-year-old-age range “over-indexing in those expectations,” he said.

Laura Alber, President and CEO of Williams-Sonoma Inc., whose home brands include its namesake kitchenware chain and furniture retailer Pottery Barn, says the trend, which is driving both its brick-and-mortar and digital business, will only gain steam amid the rise of millennials in their peak home purchasing years. “Hybrid work means people will continue to spend more time in their homes,” she said during the company’s May earnings call. “We believe that these trends will result in continued momentum to outfit and improve the home.”

[Read: Staying Healthy at Home: How COVID-19 Is Changing the Wellness Industry]

Williams-Sonoma has leaned into consumers working more – and shopping more — from home via its online business, which has swelled to 66% of total sales today, up from about 56% in 2019, Rakhlenko said.

That comes as little surprise, as across industry sectors, “Online shopping accelerated during the pandemic as more people found they liked the convenience of shopping from anywhere, whenever they wanted,” according to Adobe Commerce. And although the heady pandemic-fueled rise in online shopping has abated, U.S. consumers continue to shop more online, spending $78.8 billion in May, $1 billion more than the prior month.

To enhance its digital business, Williams-Sonoma, for its part, “has evolved to have a much bigger focus on [merchandise] curation and storytelling, which has been a big win for them,” Rakhlenko said.

CEO Alber credited enhanced product recommendation functionality and an improved furniture shopping experience with fueling digital sales.

Williams-Sonoma is also finding that its customer base, including millennials — the biggest demographic proponents of work-from-home culture — are more than happy to use their disposable income on “what they believe in,” she said during the earnings call. That’s one reason the chain is investing heavily in its sustainable strategy, upping its mix of eco-conscious goods, like bedding made from “100% responsibly sourced cotton,” and environmentally friendly business practices, which is paying off for the brand, Rakhlenko said.

Post-pandemic, Lowe’s has been inching onto Williams-Sonoma’s turf.

To capitalize on the remote work trend, the retailer has stretched beyond its core home-improvement business by positioning itself as an arbiter of home design trends, like the vintage furniture boom, via its product mix, content, as well as in-store events and online workshops, where experts dispense advice on everything from laying tile floors to creating a farmhouse table, Rees noted.

“They decided they would become a one-stop-shop” for consumers’ home needs. Pre-pandemic, who would have thought to get cute on-trend décor at Lowe’s?” she said. “They’ve done a good job appealing to millennial, first-time home buyers who are decorating on a budget.”

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Published July 13, 2022