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Progress: There’s a lot of talk about the new normal, but what will it look like for businesses?

MANY of us wish we had a crystal ball we could consult these days, whether it’s to find out the date when our children might be able to go back to school, or if we should go ahead and book that holiday.

For many businesses, asking a futurist is the next best thing. These experts analyse trends and consumer behaviour in an attempt to predict what’s next. The ‘new normal’ as we emerge from lockdown might look very different in some ways and business experts say that being ready for this will be the key to small business survival.

Social distance: An Amsterdam restaurant; the Wine School Of Cheshire online (below)

‘In addition to the immediate and responsive change that businesses have had to make, there will be many more adjustments to come over a longer period and it’s important to be as prepared as possible in difficult circumstances,’ says Karen Powell, co-founder of business consultancy A Matter Of Choice, which is running digital programmes for large and small businesses on how to lead through change entitled Adjusting To The New Reality. ‘Having concise and considered goals will help to direct your team as they adjust to a new way of working.’

Here are some expert predictions of the future business scenarios that SMEs should be working towards.

A focus on wellbeing Trend forecaster Lucie Greene, who recently led the society panel at the Virtual Fast Forward Forum, says that the pandemic will accelerate an existing ‘anxiety economy’ that promotes wellbeing products and gadgets that monitor our air quality.

‘We could also see a new, considered consumer who focuses on wellbeing and cares about sustainability,’ she says.

That’s good news for small businesses that already stock wellbeing products, but could also be an area of diversification for some, with a focus on sustainable supply chains and products that make people feel better about themselves. Aleksandra Sasha Horwood, founder of Happy Stance Yoga, has been able to tap into this trend by offering gift certificates for online yoga classes focused on fall prevention and mobility for people concerned about their elderly family members not getting enough exercise in isolation.

‘The new situation made me finally jump into online teaching, something I only did reluctantly before. Now, I am absolutely convinced of the benefits!’ she says.

A desire for at-home leisure Even after the world opens up again, it will be a long time before everyone is comfortable with public socialising, particularly in busy spaces. Faith Popcorn, futurist from Brain Reserve, says that when we do socialise, we’ll be comforted by contactless payment, and ‘safe’ solutions like the tiny greenhouses customers are frequenting in Amsterdam restaurant Mediamatic ETEN.

For many people, Virtual Reality will seem safer, and experiences will be best enjoyed at home, she says, with home-delivered food paired with virtual reality landscapes.

At-home experiences can help you to find new customers, too. Richard Smith, of Wine School Of Cheshire in Chester, has moved his wine-tasting events online, and due to the demand for home experiences, his business is up on last year.

‘The new normal is already here,’ he says. ‘A little imagination and a great deal of hard work with added customer loyalty really can pay off.’

Different shopping habits We won’t stop shopping, but we might buy different things, especially since futurists say that office work, and the attire that goes with it, won’t return to normal for some time to come.

‘We’ll certainly buy less luxury apparel,’ says David Shrier, futurist and programme director of Oxford Cyber Futures at the Saïd Business School, stressing that working life will remain home-based for some time.

‘When there’s no one there to see you, then why would you wear it?’ he adds. Instead, expect more spending on home décor, DIY and gardening.

William Higham, consumer futurist at Next Big Thing, says we’ve all spent a lot of time in our homes recently, so if we don’t like them, we’ll either move or change them, depending on circumstances. He adds that most of us will continue to shop online, so those shops that wish to survive need to focus on making the experience pleasurable, and to give people a reason to come to the store.

‘People will go and experience goods and then have them delivered,’ he says.

In line with the heightened anxiety theme, customers will also wish to be reassured that shopping is ‘safe’, so investments in contactless payment solutions and reassuring social distancing measures will also tempt customers through the doors.

Take time to prepare Preparing for this new normal may take some time and investment. Karen Powell, at A Matter Of Choice, says the key is to keep it steady.

Focus on taking back control in manageable steps, and remain agile and flexible in your approach, she advises.

‘We are confronted with a “new reality” every day. Don’t overwhelm your business by setting over-ambitious plans and accept that progression will be steady.’

Considering these new trends, asking your customers what they want and making the very best use of technology will help you to navigate this very difficult time.

‘Designing a product specific for one industry or requirement is a risk’

Travel smart: Alex Stewart asked customers how he should diversify. Below: An Essentials Pouch

FOR Alex Stewart’s business, OneNine5, a travel ban seemed like the worst possible news. The company’s name is aimed at ‘inspiring you to get out there and visit all 195 countries on planet Earth’ and, until recently, it was selling thousands of recyclable travel wash bags aimed at removing the need for clear plastic bags to put liquids in at airports.

‘By the time the US banned all flights between Europe in mid-March, we knew global travel was grinding to a halt,’ said Alex. ‘With a brand and products associated to foreign travel, we realised that we needed to pivot and focus on helping our customers to pack smart in their daily lives.’

The company’s first move was to ask its customers how they were feeling. ‘We started to run polls on social media asking our followers when they think they’ll be able to take a foreign holiday again. Some felt optimistic that they’d travel in late 2020 but the most popular answer was 2021.’

The company designed a new product, an Essentials Pouch, which is no longer focused on those making overseas trips. ‘Our customer research suggested that people carry lots of small items with them, from make-up, hygiene essentials or tech and wires but these are commonly unorganised and found at the bottom of people’s bags. We’ll market these for the everyday commute, the pouch to keep everything organised when heading out to meet with friends, or even on your daily workout to keep keys, phones and bottles of hand sanitiser safe.’

Alex says the business has learned a hard lesson, but he now feels optimistic. ‘Designing products specific to one industry or requirement is a risk. While it’s been stressful, by expanding our range and the use-cases for our products, we’ll be in a stronger position in the long term.’ Even before the new product is ready, the company has seen an increase in new customers.

‘We’ve seen a big rise in sales for those who still need to carry goods for medical/health purposes, such as expectant mother’s planning to give birth in hospital, on a daily basis.’

‘It’s a huge treat not to have to travel extensively to each gig’

CUT off from her audience by coronavirus, professional session drummer Holly Madge used DIY skills taught by her dad to build her own recording studio near her home in Newquay, where she’s currently working on a game soundtrack.

‘As a professional musician travelling and playing events, there’s been a pretty big shift,’ she explains. ‘The diary cleared almost immediately, with many events postponing until 2021. My focus moved towards remote recording, something I could do in isolation from an industrial estate near my house in Cornwall.’

Holly has toured the world and recorded soundtracks with Hans Zimmer and more recently recorded the album No Man’s Land with Frank Turner. As soon as the lockdown was announced Holly purchased a set of microphones and set up a studio allowing her to record her drum parts remotely.

‘Grateful for the DIY skills my dad taught me and the determination mum instilled in us to just keep on keeping on, I researched and built it in three weeks and will continue modifying as more supplies become available,’ she says.

Drum roll: Holly Madge has worked with composer Hans Zimmer, below

‘It’s been enlightening realising what I’ve learnt over the past ten years of touring and performing, and finally having a place to channel the musical identity I’d unknowingly honed over that time.

‘It’s also a huge treat to do so in jeans and a T-shirt and not have to travel extensively for each gig. Being able to record the drums for an incredible gaming soundtrack and then squeeze in a swim with my dog for our daily exercise before being home for dinner at 7pm with my fiancé, rather than rushing out the door for a gig, is a huge shift and one that I’ve come to love.In what has been so hideous for so many, I count myself very lucky to have health and family.’JADE WRIGHT

Our experts

William Higham — Consumer futurist and author of The Next Big Thing

David Shrier — Programme director of Oxford Cyber Futures at the Saïd Business School

Karen Powell — Co-founder of business consultancy A Matter Of Choice

Faith Popcorn — A futurist, author, and founder and CEO of Brain Reserve

Lucie Greene — A trend forecaster, author and founder of Light Years, a Los Angeles-based futures practice