From toilet paper hoarding to tap-and-go: What habits will we keep post-COVID?

On the evening of Saturday March 6, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, two women were caught on camera arguing in an aisle at Woolworths in western Sydney's Chullora. It quickly turned into a scuffle on a video subsequently watched millions of times on social media.

The dispute? Both wanted the same packs of toilet paper amid a spate of panic buying across the country leaving supermarket shelves empty and tough limits imposed on shoppers.

People do strange and unpredictable things in a crisis.

Our loo roll hoarding isn’t likely to survive this pandemic, but other habits will stick around.Credit:Viki Petherbridge

While the loo roll hoarding has eased off, and shelves in most stores are fully stacked again, there will be some habits that will be hard to shake when this pandemic ends.

It's the major piece of guesswork for economists, demographers and policymakers right now: Which of our new habits will actually stick?

For those thinking the future is a bit murky, the Reserve Bank has an idea of one change we can all probably agree on.

Since 2017, the RBA has conducted a consumer payments survey every three years. Its latest research discussion paper released last week shows a marked change in spending patterns even prior to the pandemic.

Shoppers were already leaving their cash untouched for day-to-day payments in 2019 and were tapping their cards or phones instead to pay for small items. For online shopping, debit cards surpassed credit cards as the favoured method at the checkout, and buy now, pay later services such as Afterpay emerged for the first time as a payment method, though at low levels.

"More recently, the switch to electronic payment methods is likely to have accelerated as a result of consumer and merchant responses to COVID-19," the RBA paper says.

"[There] has been an increased use of online shopping as consumers changed their purchasing behaviour and merchants increased their online capabilities in response to the COVID-19 situation."

In fact, the RBA researchers reckon we could see a more permanent shift in spending patterns for some customers, and future surveys will likely show the online share of consumer payments remains higher.

This might seem like an obvious change, which it is. But it might also seem like a small one with limited implications, which it is not.

The economy is less like a puppet where you pull the string connected to the hand and the arm jerks upwards, and more like a spider web where touching one of the threads affects the whole structure.

Knock-on effects

As an example, a shift towards online shopping not only forces retailers to focus more quickly on their digital efforts, but it could also mean a reduction in the expensive Sydney and Melbourne real estate they need to rent as they serve fewer in-person customers.

This has knock-on effects for inner-city retail strips and for the staff that work there. There could be a need for fewer customer service staff and more delivery drivers, packers and IT professionals. The city could become less of a drawcard for visitors leading to reduced congestion.

Even what seems like a small shift on the surface can have significant ramifications down the track.

A similar pattern is being seen in services too, with medical professionals (particularly in the mental health sector) shifting to Zoom consultations and office workers holding business meetings online. Some companies are likely to continue these practices into the future, though whether widespread work-from-home habits will continue is hard to tell.

If working remotely does become more common over the long term, this has the potential to have an even more dramatic effect.

While there are many push and pull factors that go into determining where someone ultimately chooses to live, access to employment is definitely up there as a priority for working-age people. This means families who would prefer to avoid a significant mortgage can, potentially, relocate somewhere cheaper without risking a huge commute and still have access to a competitive market for jobs.

This affects public transport, the housing market and the type and location of infrastructure the government will need to build to support a more geographically diverse population.

Businesses would also be able to look much further afield for talented staff, rather than being limited to those willing to live within a reasonable distance of a particular company's head office, adding to the flexibility of the labour force. (However, as some commentators have warned, this could lead to more outsourcing and offshoring.)

This is one example of the challenge facing policymakers at the moment as they grapple with responding to the recession and planning for the long term.

No one can assume everything will go back to "normal" after the pandemic subsides, but at the same time there's no guarantee all the unusual ways we are behaving now will continue for more than the short term.

Even what seems like a small shift on the surface can have significant ramifications down the track.

Hopefully, our national run on the toilet roll aisle is not going to survive beyond the pandemic. But in planning our economic recovery it's important that businesses and policymakers give careful consideration to what changes in our lives are actually here to stay for the long term.

Ross Gittins is on leave.

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