The year 2020 was make-or-break for many consumer-oriented companies. The COVID-19 pandemic pushed some companies that had previously been weakened by the "retail apocalypse" and U.S.-China trade war into bankruptcy.
Meanwhile, companies with forward-thinking business models seemed to weather the economic storm well, and in some cases flourish. They did so, in part, by catering to consumer trends that had developed before the pandemic but were also accelerated or possibly exacerbated by the pandemic.
Let's take a look at the seven defining consumer trends of 2020, how they affected investors, and whether or not those trends will continue in 2021.
1. The end of non-essential travel and social gatherings
The pandemic hit businesses that rely on travel and social gatherings the hardest. Many airlines and hotels experienced double-digit revenue declines as cities faced lockdowns, curfews, and tighter stay-at-home rules.
2. The accelerated growth of the stay-at-home economy
As more people stayed at home and worked remotely, Zoom Video Communications (ZM -0.51%) became synonymous with video calls, the time spent on mobile apps and video games soared, and Peloton Interactive (PTON 4.76%) locked in subscribers with its pricey exercise bikes as gyms closed down.
That's why shares of Zoom and Peloton rose about 490% and 370%, respectively, this year. But investors should note that both high-growth darlings will face tough year-over-year comparisons next year as the pandemic hopefully passes.
3. The accelerated shift toward streaming services
Prior to the pandemic, movie theater chains were already clashing with companies like Netflix (NFLX -1.44%) over the simultaneous releases of movies on streaming platforms and in theaters.
This year, movie theaters struggled with shutdowns as the usage of streaming services soared. In their latest quarters, Netflix surpassed 195 million global subscribers, and Disney's (DIS -1.19%) various streaming services reached 120 million paid subscribers.
Throughout the year, Disney released major films like Mulan, Hamilton, and Artemis Fowl -- which were all originally slated for theaters -- on Disney+ instead. AT&T recently followed Disney's lead with planned simultaneous releases for Warner Bros' movies in theaters and its streaming platform HBO Max next year.
4. Pandemic-induced shopping sprees
The pandemic throttled sales of non-essential products, but also sparked waves of panicked purchases of essential products like toilet paper, cleaning products, and packaged foods.
Big retailers like Walmart, Target, and Costco benefited from that shift, while otherwise dull consumer staples giants like Kimberly Clark and Clorox suddenly generated quarters of accelerating revenue growth.
5. An accelerating shift toward e-commerce platforms
Retailers that had wisely expanded their e-commerce platforms, logistics capabilities, and in-store pickup options -- like Amazon, Walmart, Target, Best Buy, and lululemon athletica -- fared much better than companies that didn't. Decentralized online marketplaces like Etsy also flourished as larger retailers struggled with supply chain and logistics constraints throughout the pandemic.
The pandemic also forced many smaller businesses to ramp up their spending on Shopify (SHOP -3.86%), which provides tools for running online stores, processing orders, and managing marketing campaigns. That's why Shopify's revenue soared 82% year over year in the first nine months of 2020 as its stock nearly tripled.
Restaurants also flocked to delivery platforms like DoorDash (DASH -1.18%), which reported a whopping 200% year-over-year jump in orders in the first nine months of the year, to offset their losses of on-premise diners.
6. The death of cash
The rising usage of mobile devices, the growth of e-commerce platforms, and robust demand for contactless payments during the pandemic created a fertile market for digital payment platforms.
Square's (SQ -1.71%) Cash App hit 30 million active users this June, up from 24 million at the end of 2019. PayPal's (PYPL 0.12%) total payment volume also grew 36% year over year in constant-currency terms, marking its strongest payments growth ever. Those trends, which are gradually displacing cash and card-based payments, could continue after the pandemic passes.
7. A growing list of bankruptcies
Dozens of major retailers and restaurant chains, including JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, and California Pizza Kitchen, filed for bankruptcy protection this year. Many of those companies had already been struggling prior to the pandemic, and stay-at-home measures merely delivered the potentially fatal blows.
That streak of bankruptcies could continue in 2021 as weaker businesses deal with a second wave of infections, potential delays in vaccines, a high unemployment rate, and weak stimulus measures.
The road ahead
Consumer sentiment in America has improved into the holidays as more businesses reopen and new vaccines are introduced, but four out of 10 Americans still don't expect their finances to "return to normal" until the second half of 2021 or later, according to a recent survey by McKinsey.
The consulting firm also found that U.S. consumers will still make more purchases online, even after the crisis ends, and over three-quarters had "changed stores, brands, or the way they shop" throughout the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds of respondents hadn't resumed "normal" out-of-home activities yet.
In other words, 2020 was a transformative year for the American consumer, and those trends should continue in 2021 as the aftershocks of the pandemic ripple across multiple industries.