Non-obvious ways that the pandemic has changed our lives : The Indicator from Planet Money From smoking more cigarettes to stocking up on meatless meats, the pandemic has changed consumer behavior in some unexpected ways.
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5 (More) Ways Life Has Changed

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5 (More) Ways Life Has Changed

5 (More) Ways Life Has Changed

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

Hey, everyone. Stacey and Cardiff here. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. The coronavirus pandemic has changed a lot of things about our lives in some pretty obvious ways, changes that you've probably heard all about.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Yeah, things like, you know, people are spending more time at home, less time at the office. People are eating out less, spending more money on groceries.

GARCIA: But there are also some ways that the pandemic has changed behavior that are less obvious and maybe less expected, even a little bit quirky, and specifically, consumer behavior, what people are spending their money on. And that's what today's show is all about - five non-obvious ways that the pandemic has changed spending habits.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: Also, Cardiff and I share which of these changes apply to us and which don't. And also, why Cardiff keeps eating more bacon and smoking tons of cigarettes.

GARCIA: Hey. That's not...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: That's not 100% right. It's, like, 70% right.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA: OK, so let's jump right into it. Here is non-obvious change No. 1 - people seem to be smoking more, buying more cigarettes.

VANEK SMITH: The company Altria makes the Marlboro brand of cigarettes. And according to that company's CEO, the reason people are smoking more in the pandemic is probably that so many social events just aren't taking place anymore. So people are more alone, and they're using some of that alone time to smoke.

GARCIA: And, you know, sales of cigarettes have been falling for years. And before the pandemic, Altria had expected that sales would fall this year by 4% to 6%. But now the company expects sales to fall only by 2% to 4% because enough people have taken up smoking again to offset some of that decline. Stacey, I'm a little bit ashamed to say that one of those people is me, actually.

VANEK SMITH: No. Really?

GARCIA: I haven't taken up smoking again, but I have sparked up a few more times in the last few months than I otherwise would have.

VANEK SMITH: That is a dangerous dance, Cardiff Garcia. I haven't even taken a drag in, like, more than 10 years since I quit - not one.

GARCIA: Well done.

VANEK SMITH: Thank you.

GARCIA: It's a terrible habit.

VANEK SMITH: It's terrible. It's very, very hard to quit, in my experience. But, you know, do what you've got to do.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: OK, non-obvious change No. 2 - people are buying a lot more used cars now.

GARCIA: Yeah. And to be clear, overall, people are driving less because of the pandemic. There's less commuting. And also, people are buying fewer new cars. But used car sales are actually going up and up and up.

VANEK SMITH: In fact, the research company Edmunds says all this demand actually increased the average price of used cars and trucks by more than $700 in the month of July. These vehicles now cost about $21,500. And the researchers at Edmunds said that increase in price is, quote, "an unprecedented historical shift in the used vehicle market." Because used vehicles normally go down in price over time. This normally just doesn't happen.

GARCIA: Yeah. It's, like, the classic depreciating item, that it's supposed to go down over time. And that has at least temporarily been reversed. And so the question is, why have people shifted to used cars so much recently? And there's a few possible reasons.

One reason is that there are fewer new cars available to buy now than there otherwise would have been because production has been limited by the pandemic. Some auto factories have been shut down for at least a little bit of time. But of course, the economy itself is still in a rough place, and so people are looking to get good deals. And even though used cars have gone up in price, they're still cheaper than new cars. So those are a couple of the possible reasons.

VANEK SMITH: Non-obvious trend No. 3 - camping - possibly related to used cars, by the way. People are buying a lot more equipment, camping equipment, for outdoor activities, maybe even reversing a long-term trend.

GARCIA: Yeah. According to a survey from before the pandemic by the Outdoor Industry Association, people were doing fewer outdoor activities than they were a decade ago. Survey found that fewer than 1 out of every 5 people, quote, "recreated outside at least once a week," unquote, which is a abysmally low, actually.

VANEK SMITH: Well, it is low no more. As The New York Times recently reported, since the pandemic started, there have been shortages of things like outdoor survival gear, freeze-dried food, backup power supplies. And at different times, there have also been rushes to buy things like bait and tackle to go fishing, outdoor pools and kayaks.

GARCIA: Yeah. And at one point, hammocks, also, which I think suggests that, like, some of this, quote-unquote, "camping" is going on in people's backyard, which, by the way, is my kind of camping, OK?

VANEK SMITH: Is backyard camping?

GARCIA: Like, the kind of camping that lets you go back inside with no mosquitoes, a nice hot shower and a bed to crawl back into at night, right?

VANEK SMITH: This is the Cardiff Garcia kind of camping. I like a good backwoods experience, I will say. I am a fan. But I have not been camping since the pandemic because I do not have a car.

GARCIA: Ah, OK.

VANEK SMITH: Maybe, maybe - I know.

GARCIA: You could contribute to two of these trends at the same time if you wanted.

VANEK SMITH: I could. And then I could start smoking.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: Go for the even three.

GARCIA: That's right. Non-obvious change No. 4 is another one that you and I, Stacey, have talked about a few times, which is that a lot of people are paying a hefty amount now for their monthly energy bill because, of course, people are, like, spending more time at home. And so they've got their air conditioning units cranking at all hours instead of turning them off, like when people go to work or go to school.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And also, you know, our lights are on all day. We're using power sources for computers all day, and it adds up. According to clean energy company Arcadia, the typical energy bill for people living in cities will be about 10% higher this summer than in a typical summer. In Philadelphia and New York, the bills could be 15% higher, which is great because we both live in New York so...

GARCIA: Yeah, outstanding.

VANEK SMITH: And my energy bill is at least 15% higher, by the way, at least.

GARCIA: Mine is way, way higher than that. I actually looked up one of my...

VANEK SMITH: I think mine's double. Is that possible?

GARCIA: Yeah, mine is more than double. By the way, it also just goes to show that this is another way that companies are kind of saving on not having people in their offices, for the people that can work from home, because, like, now we're absorbing the cost of that, instead of turning off our air conditioning and going to the office and using the office's AC. So this is just kind of a thing for people to keep in mind, you know, something that's changed.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, a working from home expense, for sure. I wonder if we can start getting companies to pay for part of our energy bills - feels fair.

GARCIA: Like NPR, maybe.

VANEK SMITH: I mean, I'm just saying. I'm just throwing things out there.

GARCIA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Non-obvious change No. 5 - fake meat. Remember, Cardiff, we did a piece on fake meat and how popular it was getting, like, the Beyond Burger and things like that? So people are buying more fake meat products. Beyond Meat, which makes meatless burgers and other meatless products, got a ton of press last year. They said that sales of those products in grocery stores tripled in the second quarter of this year - tripled.

GARCIA: Yeah. I mean, even relative to sales of other foods, which also went up, that is a massive jump. And a big part of the reason is that prices of real meats, like beef and veal, are still way higher than they were before the pandemic. And of course, that's because producing those real meats has been tough during the pandemic. Like, for example, there have been a lot of COVID outbreaks in meat-packing plants, as we've also covered on the show.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And so the higher prices of real meat has made switching to meatless options more appealing. And also, I mean, I've been cooking at home way more than I ever have in my whole life, and I'm also just looking for variety a little bit. I mean, for a while, I just ate - I ate so much bacon. I was eating bacon, like, three times a day.

GARCIA: Yeah (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: And then I had to calm down with the bacon. And also I got sick of - I haven't - I can't even eat bacon anymore. I had too much bacon. So I also feel like there's, like, kind of a desire for variety.

GARCIA: Yeah. I have heard of this mythical point at which somebody can actually get diminishing enjoyment out of bacon. I've never reached it myself. I've tried, and I've never reached it myself. I'm impressed that you got there.

VANEK SMITH: You haven't trained hard enough, Cardiff. You'll get there.

GARCIA: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: I can show you the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

GARCIA: So that's it;, five non-obvious ways that consumer spending behavior and that our lives have changed. We will include a lot of links to the research that we cited in this piece in the show notes at npr.org/money.

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by James Sneed and fact-checked by Brittany Cronin. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch, and it is a production of NPR.

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