As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout the world, the socio-economic situation inevitably changes with it. The challenge is how to navigate the reality those changes bring while balancing business and social objectives for consumers and stakeholders alike.
Speculation around the projected global market impact of COVID-19 continues to evolve. And trends have emerged around industries experiencing growth despite the pandemic and the challenges that come with sudden high demand.
GLOBAL MARKET IMPACT
The global economy is taking a hit. In the US, 30 million people filed for unemployment in the space of six weeks (as of the end of April). Economic projections show that the longer it takes for the number of US COVID-19 cases to peak (and the more successful we are at “flattening the curve”), the slower the recovery, with GDP shrinking by as much as 6%.
Across the world, uncertainty around COVID-19 is more than three times higher than with any pandemic in the last 25 years. Historically, this uncertainty has coincided with lower growth and tighter financial conditions. And this impact is already visible in the countries most impacted by COVID-19. From the outbreak’s beginning in December 2019, to the end of March 2020, the Nikkei, Dow Jones, and FTSE 100 dropped by 22%, 24%, and 29%, respectively, with the trend continuing into April. And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) forecasts a 2.4% global growth in GDP in 2020 (compared to 2.9% in 2019). If the global outbreak is prolonged, OECD anticipates that 2020 growth could be as low as 1.5%.
In Europe, nonessential services that have been closed by the government account for one-third of the region’s output – and each month they remain closed means a 3% drop in annual GDP.
Global foreign direct investment is also projected to decline by 40% in 2020. This could cause lasting damage to global production and supply chains. The World Trade Organization is forecasting that 2020 global trade volume could shrink by 13-32%, compared to 2019. This is expected to impact the availability and prices of goods – like toilet paper, medicines, and laptops. Companies are struggling to acquire the raw materials for their products, as well as get finished products to consumers worldwide.
The extent of the global market impact depends on how quickly the international community can mitigate the spread of the virus and reboot their economies. And so will the recovery of the hardest-hit industries, like travel, tourism, retail, and hospitality. But for some industries, the opposite is the case.
INDUSTRIES THAT ARE THRIVING
While the spread of (and response to) COVID-19 is certainly having cascading impacts on several industries, others are seeing significant growth.
eCommerce as a whole is booming. But the impacts of COVID-19 on online shopping vary greatly from one industry to the next – and between markets. In the UK, for example, Brits have turned to online shopping for items to help them weather quarantine – like fitness equipment, hobby-related goods, and children’s outdoor play structures. But sales in clothing and shoes have dipped. Beauty and personal care products are in high demand in Italy. In Japan, following the decision to delay the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and ahead of April’s declaration of a state of emergency, consumers have been stocking up on essential goods like rice, pasta, and noodles. For many markets, disruptions to supply chain and logistical shipping infrastructures have resulted in online shops running out of stock.
Unsurprisingly, many companies seeing unprecedented growth solve consumers’ stay-at-home needs without a heavy reliance on physical, cross-border supply chains.
As more regions implemented “shelter in place” orders in March and April, the demand for video conferencing skyrocketed. In mid-March, Microsoft reported that the number of users of their Teams tool had grown 37% in a single week to more than 44 million daily users, and over 900 million meeting and call minutes on Teams every day. On March 31, they set a record of 2.7 billion meetings in a single day, and the platform’s overall number of video calls grew by over 1,000% during March.
While the stock market fell sharply in the same period, Zoom’s stock rose by about 75% year-to-date. In Q1 of 2019, Zoom averaged 10 million daily meeting participants. By mid-April this year, the company was averaging over 200 million.
Mobile app downloads and usage have been growing quickly across the board. People under quarantine have looked for digital alternatives to their out-of-home activities and for new ways to stay entertained. Over the first 10 weeks of the year, Google’s global share of Android app sales rose 5% to $360 million. Apple’s share of iPhone app sales grew 18% to $690 million. Voice calling over WhatsApp doubled in volume, and Facebook Messenger had similar growth.
In Europe, health and fitness app downloads grew by 46% in March compared to February. And downloads in reading-related apps grew by 21%. Mobile games downloads also grew significantly in March (19%), though spending on those apps only grew by 12% between February and March to $740 million.
When it comes to streaming services, unsurprisingly, stay-at-home orders led to higher demand for in-home entertainment. Netflix subscriptions jumped 66% in Italy, and 35% in Spain (compared to 9% in the US, where the service was already popular). Twitch, the game streaming service owned by Amazon, saw nearly $20 million in user spending in Q1 of 2020, and was one of the most downloaded mobile apps globally. And YouTube collected $110 million of in-app spending during the same time period.
Like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, Houseparty (a consumer video chat app) has seen massive growth. In mid-April, the company reported 50 million sign-ups worldwide, with growth 70 times above normal in some markets.
While traditional business-related IT spend and budgets have been cut due to COVID-19, cloud software sales are projected to increase, particularly in the area of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Research firm IDC forecasts that overall global IT spend will decline 2.7% this year. But spending on software is expected to rise by 1.7%. Total IT infrastructure spending will increase by 5.3% – all from enterprise spending on IaaS. Snowflake, a cloud data platform, reports more interest in their services as CTOs plan for the impact COVID-19 is having on their business.
CHALLENGES OF COVID-DRIVEN GROWTH
For some companies, the pandemic-driven increase in demand has come with increased scrutiny. So it’s been essential for them to pivot quickly to allay consumer fears and maintain brand sentiment.
For example, more people are turning to social media for connection and entertainment. So the spread of inaccurate information around COVID-19 is also growing. In response, Facebook launched a service to alert users who have interacted with harmful misinformation about COVID-19.
And as more companies and consumers adopted Zoom for video conferencing, potential security issues with the platform emerged, resulting in some companies and governments banning its use for official purposes. Zoom responded quickly by pausing the rollout of new features in order to address these concerns swiftly.
Having more users and more time spent on a platform doesn’t necessarily mean more revenue. Google and Facebook both reported significantly higher use since the pandemic began, but lower advertising revenue in Q1 2020, primarily driven by losses in March. Some analysts expect this trend to continue, with annual revenue losses projected for both companies in 2020. Similarly, Twitter and Pinterest have withdrawn previous revenue growth projections after sharp declines in late Q1.
For tech companies delivering their services over the internet, unprecedented demand has caused a scramble to build out additional capacity and avoid service disruptions for end users.
And with more consumers staying home, broadband infrastructure in markets worldwide has been struggling to cope with the demand. Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime, Facebook, and Disney+ all reduced their streaming quality in Europe to free up bandwidth for other vital services. And Disney+ delayed its planned launch in France by two weeks at the request of the French government. Netflix also reduced video quality in Malaysia to decrease overall network traffic in the country by 25%.
These pivots may produce initial challenges for streaming services. But they also strengthen brand sentiment at both consumer and government levels. By providing a dependable experience to users who are competing with neighbors for bandwidth, they solidify their services as key components of their users’ everyday lives.
The spread of COVID-19 has thrown the global market into a state of flux. Countries are in varying stages of coping with the pandemic and its fallout. And while some industries are clearly coming out ahead in the current situation, that success can come with significant challenges.
Right now, consumers are more forgiving of less-than-perfect experiences. But that will change as the world settles into its “new normal.” Consumers will adjust to the halfway point between life as they’ve known it and their new tech-dependent, virtual existence. As that happens, localization and user experience will become crucial to meeting their evolving expectations and driving brand growth.