Uncertainty drives change. With every global pandemic throughout history, out of safety and necessity, mankind has demonstrated remarkable resilience to evolve and adapt to a new normal.  During these times there is documented evidence of markedly accelerated adoption of new behaviors.   Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the timeframes for embracing new emerging technologies are being radically accelerated. In some instances companies and sectors will see a decade of market penetration compressed into the next 12 months.

In our view, the confluence of these needs and circumstances within very specific niches that intersect with each other, is creating opportunities for rapid exponential growth in numerous channels. We have summarized twelve that we believe will be the most pervasive:

  1. E-Commerce retailers – Online is booming. Across the country and the globe, humans have been forced to use it for everything. The adoption rate in the United States has grown tremendously and will probably never retreat to pre-COVID levels. It is not just demographics like older Americans now moving to e-commerce as a necessity, it’s vertical, as in most Americans are all of the sudden buying verticals like groceries and consumer products online. This creates exponential growth and while it will pull back after quarantines, it will revert to a mean as consumers continue shopping online out of convenience in a post-COVID-19 world.
  2. Industrial real estate – Typically when we think about an e-commerce distribution facility, we calculate that they require about three times that of a typical business-to-business facility to accommodate more complex pick-pack systems and provide access to a greater variety of product. With an interest in bringing some industries back to the United States for better control in times of disruption, as well as a new trend of increasing safety stock, demand for industrial space will likely grow. Following on the growth of e-commerce, new retailers will develop strictly online marketplaces and have management either working from the distribution facility and/or from home.
  3. Augmented reality – The ability to see and touch goods prior to purchasing has not taken a hold yet in America, but with a trend of staying closer to home, augmented reality of the shopping environment is likely to displace some of the desire to drive to a store. With the technologies improving and the costs declining, the transition will be made easier.
  4. Robotics – The benefits of not relying on humans has never been more evident than during this pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, the rationale behind leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) was primarily based upon rising wage concerns and lack of available workers. Now high unemployment means an abundance of available workers, but working environments incorporating social distancing norms will require a transformation of the warehouse operations. Watch for these automated technologies to be adopted rapidly as employers look for low-cost, flexible automation solutions to replace humans wherever functionally possible.
  5. 5G and the growth of bandwidth requirements – With more people working from home, the speed of our connections will be paramount to many of the growth sectors listed here. It can’t happen without faster connections and more homeowners are looking for opportunities to increase or accelerate their bandwidth as both parents and children are working and schooling from home. Here they come.
  6. Virtual meetings – Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the only video conferencing or chat tool that had become somewhat ubiquitous was FaceTime. Now Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Skype are all being used widely across a variety of business sectors. Perhaps Zoom is to Virtual Human Connection analogous to how AOL dial up was to your Internet connection.
  7. Online groceries and last-mile distribution centers – What if grocery shopping meant choosing food online that never goes into a grocery store facility, but instead triggers a pick-up service window at an small, high cube tri-temp building with AI robots fulfilling your complete order to be ready at a pre-determined time slot? What if these could be built right now in the parking lots of existing grocery stores? Will retail stores double as last-mile distribution locations?
  8. Freezer and cooler supply chain – In times of crisis, food delivery becomes more critical to as a basic human need. One of the first industries to experience a real boom in work from the onset of this pandemic was food, specifically frozen food. People stocking up on necessities for an uncertain time have added additional stresses on our food supply chain, and this sector is now forced to re-imagine supply chains. Most likely, it will mean a greater need for a safety stock of food supplies in cities across the country. If the facilities are handling bulk shipments, they will probably also employ a greater level of automation, perhaps even running semi-autonomously. Already there are food facilities in this country utilizing this “dark” model. In the coming years, expect to see more.
  9. Dark kitchens – These are virtual restaurants without tables. With so many restaurants solely reliant upon home delivery of food, and the cost of maintaining a physical retail location and staff to operate a restaurant growing, the “dark” kitchen model — almost the e-commerce of food — will continue to grow. It can becompared with the next iteration of the gourmet food truck, where rather than being fixed in one location, the restaurant is more flexible in its ability to delivery food to customers. Now, centralized kitchens could serve as a hub for many restaurants and deliver a myriad of different choices of food to a customer’s home via Uber eats, DoorDash or a myriad of other choices. Delivery speed of food will continue to be positively impacted post-COVID-19.
  10. Reverse globalization – Vast socioeconomic trends had started to reverse globalization as companies sought supply chain resiliency by moving manufacturing closer to the consumer and creating redundancy in manufacturing and distribution operations. That trend will race as leaders ensure that their organizations will never be caught off guard like this again.
  11. Supply chain resilience – As discussed earlier, there will be a renewed interest in reshoring product to the United States, or moreover North America. Supply chains which have been outsourced to Asia in the fields of medical, pharmaceuticals and critical componentry may see government policy changes which promote these near-shoring opportunities.
  12. E-Learning – With most of American children forced to continue their education from home, e-learning has had a tremendous boost. The same is true with colleges and universities. What benefit do large college campuses have for a learning environment which can be replicated, or perhaps even improved upon, by taking the classroom out of the equation. With college tuition outpacing inflation significantly over the last decade, those institutions will be marginalized quickly by e-learning platforms and the younger generation of teachers will excel in this exciting field.

While we don’t portend to know the future, and our lens is limited by our own experiences and a reflection of the past, it is in times of great disruption where great  opportunity abounds. It is not just across the spectrum of the industries shared above, but among others that we cannot even imagine. Our commitment at Colliers is to continue to look with a sense of curiosity towards change, strive to gain an understanding and share our interpretations with the people and organizations that will strive to embrace and build the new future.

About the Authors:

Brian Netzky, SIOR, is an executive vice president at Colliers based in Chicago and specializing in exclusively representing industrial and office occupiers. He has more than 30 years of tenant representation experience working with manufacturers, distributors and service companies across North America. Brian is an avid reader and writer, curiously focused on the intersection of technology, finance and purpose.

Gregory Healy, senior vice president, leads the Supply Chain Solutions team in the U.S. for Occupier Services. With over 20 years of global manufacturing and supply chain experience as both a senior executive in the corporate world, as well as owning a supply chain consulting practice and a third-party logistics business, Gregory has real world experience that brings a unique perspective to the Colliers team.