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As it officially overtakes Work as priority No. 2, Play has also received a pandemic facelift.

Can Conscientiousness Conquer Convenience?

Though Americans are champing at the bit to get out and have fun, that doesn’t mean they’re less concerned about the societal impact of consumer choices. In our last report, we predicted that to survive in 2021 and beyond, it would be mission critical for brands to take a stand and express a clear mission, purpose, and strong core values to reach conscious consumers.

That trend has only accelerated in the past year, and shopping has quickly become a more conscientious experience. Shoppers are trying to patronize minority-owned businesses in a renewed movement against racial injustice while also trying to offset negative commercial and environmental impacts felt by the rise in ecommerce during the pandemic. As small business closures in 2020 surpassed historical averages by 200,0008, ecommerce sales grew dramatically, making up 14% of all retail sales (vs. 11% in 2019).9

In fact, 69% of Americans admitted in our survey that the convenience of online shopping sometimes stops them from supporting local businesses.

But people want to put in the work to be conscious consumers. Not only have searches for “ethical online shopping” grown 600% year-over-year, according to Google10 — many Americans have embraced more conscientious spending habits over the past year, including:

“Against the backdrop of this last year, brand silence is deafening. Now more than ever, we want to know the products we are using, and investing in, align with our values. But it's not just about having a distinct POV, or putting out a press release. We're entering an era of accountability. If you say you believe in something as a brand that needs to be backed up with action, impact, and dollars.”

- Naomi Hirabayashi

Cofounder & Co-CEO, Shine

But there’s still work to be done. Only 19% say they’ve started supporting BIPOC businesses more often over the past year, and minority business owners have disproportionately felt the effects of the pandemic, according to an H&R Block survey.11 As America returns to more in-person shopping without restrictions, these habits may change — especially as top retailers have doubled-down on commitments to sustainability and inclusion through initiatives like the 15 Percent Pledge.12

Bluemercury is among the many brands to have signed on to the pledge, and cites both a need to appeal to consumers as well as their own employees to be a truly mission-driven brand. “We are constantly listening to the internal conversations happening among our teams, in addition to what our consumers are telling us,” says Tracy Kline, Bluemercury’s senior vice president of marketing, merchandising and digital. “It’s important to constantly be listening to your consumers and what they would like to see from you, no matter how uncomfortable the conversations may be.”

The New Third Place

With renewed emphasis on gathering outside the home, third places — spaces outside the home or office — are quickly reestablishing their importance in 2021 and beyond. At the top of this list are shops, restaurants, and greenspaces.

Sixty percent of Americans say that their friends and family have a go-to place where they meet up regularly. But one in three report that at least one of their go-to restaurants or bars closed permanently during the pandemic.

As vaccination rates climb and COVID-19 restrictions ease, the appetite for gathering in public has waxed:

third place

[thərd plās] (noun)

In community building, the social space separate from the home or the workplace.

The majority of respondents to our survey say they’re likely to attend some kind of in-person event this year, including:

For these in-person events, and even for in-person services like nail salons, a meaningful and authentic experience is key. “As a business that built its brand as a destination that provides a great service and is incredibly sustainable, we're seeing an influx of both new customers and of investor interest. People are craving authentic experiences more than ever before, and our growth – 60% in 2021 alone – is a testament to that.” says Lauren Dunne, CEO of Varnish Lane.

When asked what they missed most about in-person shopping, Americans responded:

And Americans are demanding upgrades to that in-person experience, too:

  • Better cleaning and hygiene practices (53%)
  • More exclusive in-store sales (43%)
  • Touch-free technology (42%)
  • Increased focus on eco-friendly practices (34%)
  • In-store events (30%)

The next wave of customer discovery is going to happen online and in store. In the past, it used to be about Instagrammable moments. That’s actually way less important in the post-COVID world. Now it’s about actually having an experience that’s different from what you can do online.

- Caitlin Strandberg

Partner, Lerer Hippeau

The Hospitality Reawakening

COVID-19 thrashed the hospitality industry.

More than 100,000 dining establishments shuttered in 2020,13 while food delivery services saw a spike, driving $45 billion in sales and advancing the trend by two to three years, according to experts.14

But that strife also spawned some of the most visible innovation the industry has known in years, between expanded delivery offerings, ghost kitchens, and year-round outdoor dining. Our research suggests those innovations are here to stay.

An overwhelming majority (86%) of Americans hope outdoor dining remains as popular post-pandemic as it is now. And when it comes to what they most want to see in a restaurant or bar post-COVID, outdoor dining was again in high demand, alongside comfort and convenience:

Despite the extra savings in the bank for many households, Americans won’t be immediately breaking the bank when they go out to eat. They’re most excited to return to casual dining restaurants (39%), followed distantly by fast food joints (24%). They’ll also be returning to familiar spots, with over half (54%) claiming that they’re known as a regular at a local cafe or restaurant.

The Great Outdoors’ Comeback

A desire to be outside goes well beyond a sidewalk café. Tired of the couch, Americans are turning back to the outside world more so as a place of play: a place to gather, relax, and try new things.

And the nation is eager to get back out there. Two-thirds (65%) say that COVID-19 has made them stir crazy from staying at home, and over half (56%) have money saved up that they intend to spend on fun activities this year.

In a post-COVID America, many plan on taking more time to enjoy nature, go out to restaurants, and shop in-person. It’s also inspired many to explore their own backyard — 65% say they’ve been inspired by the pandemic to travel the U.S., rather than other countries.

Expected Frequency of Play Activities Compared to Pre-Pandemic Life

Nature has also become an essential part of Americans’ health and relationships:


Say that being outdoors has been essential to their mental health during the pandemic


Report that parks and outdoor spaces in their area are more popular than ever

People are seeing the value of the outdoors beyond the pandemic, even asking for their communities to up investments in green spaces. Eighty-six percent agree that we need to invest more in parks and green space, while 75% want more car-free streets in their cities to create outdoor space for communities.

Should Business Travel Come Back?

Following a year of shutdowns and restrictions, travel has seen a sharp uptick in 2021 — even in 2020, national parks like Yellowstone15 saw record-setting crowds, and sales of outdoor gear skyrocketed.16 In fact, 65% of Americans say that their lives just aren’t the same without it. But that increase is coming with its own changes.

A third of Americans say they are less likely to travel by plane in 2021 compared to pre-pandemic. On the flip side, 57% are more likely than before to travel by car. That said, with the rapid easing of COVID-19 restrictions, the aviation industry might not be in as bad a place as this suggests: ridership has skyrocketed, even surpassing 2019 numbers at the beginning of July.17

What’s more, consumer conscientiousness is reaching far beyond retail: 62% are concerned about the environmental impact of traveling. And while we can’t gauge exactly how much the last year’s drop in travel contributed, some estimate that U.S. greenhouse gas emissions fell around 10% in 2020.18

Business travel has also cut back almost entirely, and some experts say it may not even return to pre-pandemic levels. Even Delta Air Lines found that just about half of corporate travel managers expect business trips to be back to 2019 levels by 2023.19 This has huge implications for the travel industry: Though business travelers accounted for only 12% of airline passengers pre-pandemic, they accounted for up to 75% of profits.20

The future of business travel may emphasize quality over quantity, with longer stays that embrace the ability to work remotely from almost anywhere. For example, Mint House, which offers apartment-like suites in major downtowns across the U.S., is embracing this change by prioritizing spacious rooms 2-3 times the size of your standard hotel room, complete with full kitchens and in-unit laundry. And it’s working: Mint House reports that its revenue per available room is around double that of many traditional hotels.

“The definition of business travel has definitely blurred during the pandemic, and as we come out of it we all need to be able to work remotely wherever we are whether that is at home or on the road. This trend has played to our strength,” says Mint House’s founder and CEO Will Lucas.

Still, travelers will continue to be drawn to new spaces, regardless of business travel or carbon footprint. Top states Americans are aiming to travel to in 2021 suggest a dual appeal of beautiful outdoor spaces and arts & culture:

California (33%), Florida (30%), Hawaii (25%), and New York (19%) are the states Americans most want to travel to in 2021.

As Play becomes a larger priority in Americans’ lives, these trends will only intensify, increasing demand across the board for unique activities, new experiences, and ways to socialize.