Remember March, when stay-at-home orders and advisories first went into effect in many U.S. states and other places around the world? That month is generally not a big time for consumer electronics sales; gadgets may fly off shelves during the December holiday season, but then there’s a bit of a lull.
But things are different during a pandemic. Internet-connected exercise bike maker Peloton reported first quarter revenues up by two-thirds, as stay-at-home orders kept people from their normal exercise routines. Webcams sold out just about everywhere. And good luck finding a drugstore with a pulse oximeter in stock. Some services also saw a huge boom. Video conferencing provider Zoom, previously a tool used mostly by businesses, became a household word, and by April was clocking 300 million daily participants, up from 10 million before the pandemic. Instacart, the so-called Uber for groceries, saw sales of $700 million per week in April, up 450 percent since December.
Those are just a few examples of gadgets and services that the pandemic made more attractive to a lot of consumers. But will this pandemic effect continue, and bring a long-term boost to the consumer electronics industry?
Mojo Vision, a startup aiming to bring augmented reality contact lenses to the masses, commissioned an independent survey to find out. (While the company won’t have a product on the mass market for a few years yet, it obviously is keenly interested in consumer purchasing trends.) The survey, conducted in June, involved 2000 people who self-identified as belonging to five different categories of consumer. Forty-three percent of the respondents classed themselves into two categories of so-called first adopters (innovators and early adopters) and five percent fell into three categories of so-called later adopters (early majority, late majority, and laggards).
Ninety percent of respondents to Mojo’s survey reported their attitudes towards technology became more positive as a result of the pandemic. The survey also found that 60 percent of the first adopters and 40 percent of the later adopters bought or tried new devices, applications, or services because of the pandemic. Fifty percent of both groups indicated that they are generally using technology more. And 76 percent of the first adopters and 41 percent of the later adopters said they are likely to continue buying and trying new devices, apps, or tech services after the pandemic subsides.
The biggest shift, according to Mojo’s survey, came in the early majority group. These consumers had generally tended to wait for a tech product to become popular—and for at least a second if not third generation to arrive—before bringing it into their lives. But 42 percent of that group indicated that the pandemic sped up their adoption of technology and 48 percent said they were likely or somewhat likely to continue to buy and try new devices and technologies sooner rather than later.
The tech getting the biggest pandemic boost? Virtual communication tools, followed closely by online delivery services. But even alternative transportation—like electric scooters and semi-autonomous vehicles—is getting more interest from people who indicated that this type of technology wasn’t really on their radar pre-pandemic. And augmented and virtual reality—a category which will eventually include Mojo’s augmented reality contact lens—got a bit of a boost as well, even though it certainly isn’t an essential tool for sheltering in place right now.
Steve Sinclair, Mojo senior vice president of products says “Everyone’s been at home for 12 to 16 weeks, forced to order everyday food and groceries online and work via video conference, so people are naturally using more tech. The question is: Will it stick? Will they keep that same pace when they’re not stuck at home?
“The answer seems to be yes. And if you turn a whole lot of casual buyers into avid buyers, that’s good for tech overall.”
Turns out that there may be a little early adopter in a lot more of us than the consumer electronics industry ever dared to imagine.
This article appears in the September 2020 print issue as “Stay-At-Home Tech’s Star Turn.”
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.