Last March, Americans were told to close schools and avoid bars, restaurants and travel. As days with nowhere to go stretched into weeks and months — and now a year — our attention increasingly turned to our homes.
Families used every inch of space, carving out places to work and study. We cooked three meals a day, did armloads of laundry and finally had the time to address home to-do lists. Comfort and coziness became priorities, as did styling Zoom backdrops that wouldn’t embarrass us in front of teachers and co-workers. We searched for antibacterial wipes and stocked up on bleach. Paint and new furniture replaced travel and eating out in family budgets.
Many home-related industries pivoted to meet shifting priorities. Service industries had to find ways to keep employees and customers safe, including requiring masks and sanitizing procedures. Many people who had never bought anything larger than a book online ordered rugs and refrigerators they had never seen in real life. Virtual consultations with design experts became the norm. And companies expanded digital footprints and added online tutorials.
Here’s a look at how the pandemic affected some major home industries, and how those changes will affect the years ahead.
Families washed more clothes and dishes, bought more groceries and cooked more food. Sales for nearly every category of major home appliance were up last year, according to Jill Notini, vice president of communications and marketing for the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
There were waitlists for refrigerators, because homeowners added another fridge to their basements or garages to increase storage capacity when certain groceries were in short supply. Free-standing freezers sold out. And people whose appliances were working full tilt with families home 24/7 decided to upgrade old models — even before they stopped operating. “Any appliance that was on its way out was being replaced,” Notini says.
Industry experts think strong demand will continue this year, and manufacturers are adding new features inspired by the pandemic. Some manufacturers are adding UV lights to refrigerators, either to combat the growth of bacteria in water-filtration systems or to sanitize shelving, according to Notini. And vacuum manufacturers are building HEPA filters into a wider variety of models. “Wellness and hygiene and creating a healthy home was a trend last year and will be a big trend this year,” she says.
People sheltering in place are creating more dirty dishes, especially space-hogging mugs and bowls. Whirlpool took note. “Our research revealed millennials have seen an increase in dish pileup throughout the pandemic,” says Christy Hoskins, Whirlpool’s senior director of brand marketing. In October, Whirlpool introduced its Large Capacity Dishwasher with 3rd Rack, which can hold more dirty dishes.
One of the least expensive home improvements is a new coat of paint. So even as incomes plummeted for many Americans, painting gave them an affordable way to make the inside of their homes feel fresh. “Fifty percent of our customers picked up a paintbrush last year,” says Margi Vagell, Lowe’s senior vice president for home decor. “Our customers were looking to make spaces comfortable and more inviting.”
For Benjamin Moore, painting contractors made up 70% and DIYers 30% of its business before the pandemic, according to chief executive Dan Calkins. During the pandemic, the business shifted to 56% pros, 44% DIYers.
Part of the reason was that consumers didn’t want workers in their homes. But a lot of new business came from younger customers who had never painted before and picked up tips online. “Lots of millennials said, ‘I can do this,’ ” Calkins says. Benjamin Moore’s U.S. business was up 17% in 2020 compared with 2019, Calkins says, while the paint industry as a whole was up 13%.
Calkins expects the DIY business to increase by another four or five percentage points this year, as people stuck at home see all the cracks in their ceilings and nicks in their woodwork.
And as for color preferences? They varied widely. Silver Spring, Maryland, designer Iantha Carley has been surprised by her clients’ requests. “People who had bright colors in their homes no longer wanted them. And people who had light or white walls now want color,” she says.
Some just wanted a sense of calm. “We saw increases in blues and greens, as those are a bit more restorative and comforting,” Calkins says. This no doubt inspired the choice of Aegean Teal as the 2021 Benjamin Moore Color of the Year.
The spread of the novel coronavirus unleashed an “unprecedented, never-before-seen-in-modern-times demand for everyday cleaning products,” says Brian Sansoni, senior vice president of communications at the American Cleaning Institute.
He cites Euromonitor International figures that show cleaning-product sales were up $3.4 billion in 2020 over 2019, for a total of $33.8 billion.
As the pandemic unfolded, Lowe’s moved cleaning supplies to a more prominent position near the entrance of its stores, so consumers could quickly pick up what they needed, Vagell says.
In addition to the panic-buying of disinfecting wipes, paper towels and bleach, consumers stocked up on laundry detergent and dishwashing soap. Germ-leery people learned new ways to clean, including the meaning of “kill time,” or how long to leave disinfecting sprays on counters before wiping them down, and familiarized themselves with the sanitizing cycle on dishwashers and washing machines.
Scientific consensus has shown the coronavirus is rarely transmitted through surfaces. But Sansoni says the focus on cleaning knobs, faucets and remotes could remain part of family routines.
And people are increasingly turning to more eco-friendly cleaning tools, says Arati Menon, senior editor at Food52, a home and cooking website. She likes Food52’s compostable sponge cloths, which help reduce paper towel usage.
As people moved to a stay-at-home lifestyle, the byproduct was a new interest in organization and decluttering. Families scrambled to set up orderly workstations for everyone, and restyled pantries became the stars of Instagram.
Professional organizers stepped up virtual consultations. Amy Tokos of Freshly Organized in Omaha, incoming president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals, says clients working from home were overwhelmed. “They began looking around high-use areas like entryways, laundry rooms and family rooms. It was just too much stuff to handle.”
Organizers were also tasked with creating boundaries between the many people working and studying at home.
“There was a big demand to have organized spaces to do their jobs. Small bedrooms were converted to offices, as were closets,” says Charlie Chase, chief executive of FirstService Brands, the parent company of California Closets. “Kids needed desks that were smaller and counters easier to reach.”
The Everyday System, a California Closets collaboration with Martha Stewart introduced last year, is a wall-mounted, modular line that offers those with small spaces, especially renters, more choices, Chase says. The customizable collection includes pieces for home offices, walk-in closets, wardrobes and pantries. The wood and metal pieces can be self-installed and, if needed, disassembled and moved to another space or home.
As home offices became Zoom studios, organizers were called upon to reorder shelves and create storage systems for clients looking to make a good impression in virtual meetings.
Jeanne Fox-Alston of Your Space Made to Order in Silver Spring, Maryland, says she worked with one client to hang art and photos in stylish vignettes as a backdrop for her freshly painted Zoom room. “Then there were two tall bookcases that showed very prominently on her screen,” Fox-Alston says. “I styled them for her, so it didn’t look so haphazard.”
The pandemic also created an unprecedented demand for multifunctional furniture, says Pat Bowling, vice president of communications for the American Home Furnishings Alliance. “Americans found themselves home in ill-equipped spaces, which made it difficult for them to be productive,” she says. “Then factories and stores closed. Desks, tables and storage furniture quickly became scarce.” Patio furniture also sold out as people looked to up their outdoor entertaining game.
Add to that a national upgrading of sofas and chairs, with Americans sitting around more than ever. Carley says everyone wanted a comfortable sectional in a durable indoor/outdoor fabric or velvet. “Just about every family room I have done has a big sofa for families to hang out together. They all want to be able to lay down and watch TV, and I’ve even specified a double chaise for those with two kids. That prevents fighting.”
After factories reopened last summer, Bowling says, manufacturers and retailers scrambled to create more products and fill orders, but they are still dealing with supply-chain challenges. Although lots of upholstered furniture sold in the United States is made here, many of the fabrics come from overseas.
Also, because the winter storms in Texas last month shut down chemical plants, producers of foam used in U.S. upholstery-making have drastically cut shipments to furniture manufacturers, says Powell Slaughter, senior editor at Furniture Today.
Instead of sticker shock, consumers are getting delivery shock. Wait times for upholstery and other furniture are probably not going to improve anytime soon, he says.
“I’m hearing some people quoting summer delivery for orders placed in January,” Slaughter says. “Where a producer was shipping in, say, 30 days, now it’s 60 or more. There’s no set number, but it’s up across the board for practically everyone.”