This article was originally published in the kbb Birmingham Special Show Edition March 2022

Has Covid changed people’s lives in the long-term or has it simply accelerated changes that had already started before the pandemic began?

Kbb Birmingham 2020 remains a pivotal event in my mind. As the last trade show before lockdown I remember there being quite a surreal atmosphere throughout the NEC with optimism and pessimism being voiced in equal measure. There was the last-minute cancellations by some major brands, the introduction of hand gel on every stand and the awkwardness of the ‘do we/don’t we’ shake hands.

That year I had been asked to write an article for the show edition of this magazine and I had written about the importance of understanding the wider environment when studying the direction of trends. So, it was with a feeling of deja-vu that I opened an email asking if I’d like to contribute to this year’s show edition, with particular reference to the impact of Covid on trends for our homes.

At this point, I’d like to pose the question – did covid change anything or has it just accelerated change?

Looking back at the article I wrote two years ago, the Covid pandemic doesn’t appear to have changed our household behaviours as much as some people would have us believe. It certainly caught us off guard and resulted in us having to make short-term behavioural changes, but what is really important to understand is which of these short-term changes will go on to be the long-term trends that drive market demand for certain product categories over the next five to ten years.

Our initial behaviours at the beginning of the pandemic were the result of fear, confusion and lack of control. Behaviours that are forced on us in this way usually don’t stick, they are just reactions. Or if we put it into trend analysis language, they were fads, which are defined as “collective behaviour that develops within a culture, a generation or social group and is followed enthusiastically for a limited period of time”.

What we witnessed during lockdown was a whole rolling programme of fads, as different sectors of society or age-groups or locations adopted short-term behaviours as a reaction to the latest information they were hearing, usually via the media. And then when the next story came out, they changed their behaviour again.

Now that we have lived with Covid for two years we have found ourselves in more of a middle ground where our extreme short-term behaviours have moderated into more considered long-term behaviours. Many of these we now recognised as slightly accelerated versions of where we were heading before the pandemic.

This is how true trends develop, over longer periods of time as our habits and attitudes gradually change, albeit with a little help from a global pandemic.

Take the trend towards healthy homes as an example. Prior to 2020, there were already rising consumer concerns about the air quality in our homes. A reported 7 out of 10 people across all generations worried about the air they breathe indoors. With bacteria and viruses now being top of the list of air pollutants we are concerned about, combined with our homes becoming like sealed boxes in our efforts to be more energy and heat efficient, it is no surprise that the UK air purification market is predicting strong growth over the next 5 years.

A different kind of pollutant, but just as detrimental to our health and wellbeing, is noise. Very much an invisible pollutant, layers of sound can build up over time in our homes. Whereas previously we may have been able to ignore these layers of sound, working from home especially during virtual meetings has made us extra sensitive to the amount of noise we have going on around us and which is impacting on our mental health and energy levels.

This is borne out by research by Quiet Mark, the international consumer champion for acoustic design, which found that 76% of UK consumers are now more likely to buy a kitchen appliance labelled as ‘quiet’ over an appliance of the same performance

Kitchen acoustics are not helped by our love of the open-plan kitchen-diner layout and now raises doubts about whether open-plan living is the most practical option for our homes. Make way for the growing trend for ‘broken plan’ layouts which allows light and openness whilst at the same time adding in barriers and materials to aid with acoustics.

We can’t talk about the healthy home without mentioning hygiene in the home. A recent research project looking at the smart toilet market revealed that we have never been so happy to talk about our toilet hygiene as we are now. Combine this with increased health concerns and the technology to monitor every aspect of our bodily functions, and we see the growth of the Self-Quantification trend which we have been tracking for some time now. Toilet analytics anyone?

Ageless products for the home has been a strong growing trend for many years due to our world-wide aging population, combined with the increasing number of multi-generations homes. Realising importance of family and community is one of the more positive outcomes of the pandemic and this will influence how we look after our elderly in the future. The extreme lockdown measures taken by care homes has sent more than a slight ripple of concern through the Baby Boomer generation and the requirement for products and apps that allow people to ‘age in place’ will only increase, again aided by smart technology.

And this brings us to the rise of the smart home. Relevance in the mind of the homeowner has always been the stumbling block to sales of smart home technology and research prior to Covid found that in order to be relevant to the consumer, smart products have to either save us money, save us time, keep us safe or solve an actual problem.

Add in suspicions over cyber security and connectivity issues, and we had a market sector that had great potential but was struggling to gain traction … until now. In 2019, 20% of people aged 16 and over in the UK owned a smart speaker, this has now increased to 50%. Over the past two years we have been forced to bank online, work online, socialise online, exercise online, buy groceries online, and we have become very aware of the benefits of home technology as well as more relaxed about sharing our data.

Circle back to our health and hygiene concerns, and the way we have become uncomfortable with touching buttons and screens, add in a sprinkle of demographic factors and the stage is set for voice technology to not only become increasingly popular but to be the dominant user interface going forward.

So you see, it’s all about context. I am certainly not underplaying the impact the pandemic has had on our economy, our financial security, our personal safety, our mental health and more, but how much has Covid actually impacted on the way we use our homes and the products that we will buy for our homes in the future? Not as much as originally predicted, but it has given us a not-so-gentle shove down the route we were already going.

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