clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

For years, brands have been pushing an at-home lifestyle. No one expected it to happen like this.

The homebody economy has consumers right where it wanted them. But what happens next?

The homebody economy has been on the rise for years. Now, massive numbers of people are at home.
Getty Images

Over the past few years, brands have wanted nothing more than for us to stay at home and buy stuff. The “homebody economy,” as Kaitlyn Tiffany named it in 2018, encompasses everything from mattress companies to CBD seltzers. What these companies all have in common is a promise to burnt-out workers that they can avoid the anxieties of daily life by filling their homes with soft clothes, soft lighting, soft bedding, and the right plants.

Now more than two-thirds of Americans are under government orders to stay at home. Homebody brands finally have consumers — especially those with the privilege of working remotely during a pandemic — right where they’ve always wanted them. It’s seemingly fortuitous. But championing staying in as a lifestyle choice takes on an uncanny timbre during the age of coronavirus, when it’s not a choice at all.

These millennial-friendly, often direct-to-consumer brands espouse a viewpoint in which the world outside is a scary place, one where hustle culture and social obligations demand that young people keep up an impossible pace. “Just 500 more minutes” reads a bus stop ad for Parachute, yet another luxury linen brand whose ads remind workers they’re not in bed.

This hygge ethos — which has been embraced even by brands that have nothing to do with being inside — was developed when burnout was one of the biggest threats to millennials’ well-being. The idea seems almost quaint now, when most white-collar workers are fortunate enough to spend their entire days at home, where they’ll worry about whether they’ll contract Covid-19, or their loved ones will, and if they do, if they’ll be able to access tests or, god forbid, a ventilator. Then there’s loss of work and the crumbling economy.

How will brands that have spent recent years convincing consumers to stay home respond to this strange and endless moment where we’re all forced to be home? Now that consumers finally have the indoor lives they were told to dream of, do they actually feel the comfort they were promised? Or will quarantine cause the end of the homebody economy, and the brands that peddled it?

It was only a few days after the coronavirus pandemic ushered white-collar Americans into a work-from-home existence when the cozy promotions started. The bedding company Brooklinen offered a 25 percent discount on its loungewear. The sustainable basics brand Everlane ran a “bundles of comfort” sale on leggings, sweats and fleece.

Other retailers attempted to calm our anxieties. Cuup, a lingerie startup, sent a “Stay-At-Home Advice” email that offered shoppers a curated list of book recommendations, breathing tips, and cooking inspiration from influencers pictured wearing their bras. The furniture and decor company West Elm created Zoom backgrounds of beautiful interiors so remote workers could “start dialing in from your dream home.” The athleisure company Lou & Grey crafted a “suuuuper laid back” Spotify playlist designed to ease Covid-19-related stress spirals. These weren’t the only brands to reach out and run sales, but their cozycore messaging did give them a leg up.

Even adventure-oriented retailers decided to pivot to homebody messaging. Outdoor outfitter Backcountry had a sock sale. Rugged outdoorsman brand Huckberry threw a Work From Home Sale offering discounts on items to help shoppers complete their “WFH Mullet” (“business up top, sweats on the bottom”). Ben O’Meara, Huckberry’s executive director of marketing, told me the unlikely pivot to cozy was born from the company employees’ new reality of working from home for the foreseeable future: “We wanted to make sure we acknowledged that we’re going through this as well.”

Shockingly, it wasn’t the only retailer to suggest mullet-inspired outfits — Rent the Runway promoted a “party on top, sweatpants on bottom” approach to videoconferencing fashion.

Within a week, email inboxes flooded with promotions ranging from the subtle — suggesting you stock up on cozy clothes — to the more overt: referencing “social distancing” and videoconferencing struggles. Few included the actual words “coronavirus” or “Covid-19” in their outreach, but they didn’t need to. Pandemic headlines loop through consumers’ minds constantly, as if a news chyron had been implanted directly into their brains.

The WFH sales speak to a privileged class during a crisis that has laid bare just how stratified our country is. While some American workers are afforded the luxury of having a salary and health care to help them through coronavirus, many are not. And the precarity of the US economic situation gets clearer with every headline: Employees being refused paid sick leave, recovering Covid-19 patients leaving the hospital burdened with massive medical bills, hospitals begging for donations of protective equipment for their workers — these are the horror stories that circulate the internet daily. The concern for those on the front lines means some consumers who are working from the comfort of their couch don’t feel justified in splurging.

“I have been doing a lot of online ‘window shopping,’ but anytime I feel the urge to add to my cart, my guilty conscience reminds me of the warehouse worker that could potentially have to leave isolation in order to fill my order,” one shopper told me.

Another echoed this sentiment: “I don’t want to stress out the package delivery system even more with unnecessary purchases. If I order something dumb, that’s just added work for them.”

Then there’s the feeling that the disaster could easily happen to us. Renée Richardson Gosline, a senior lecturer and research scientist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, says the prominent messaging consumers are receiving right now is one of scarcity. Many people are currently unable to access what they need, whether that’s basic household cleaning items, pantry staples, or coronavirus tests. Beyond the scarcity of the moment looms the scarcity to come — a recession or depression. Just a few weeks after the economic downturn first hit hospitality and travel, mass layoffs are now reaching industries like tech, media, and retail.

The sense of scarcity that characterizes the current moment is a stark contrast to what came before it. Coronavirus descended upon the US when the economy was booming. Gosline believes that at the height of the stock market, before the virus hit, an “eat the rich” backlash to consumerism was already surfacing. Then the pandemic laid bare just how rich the rich were when celebrities began receiving immediate access to largely unavailable coronavirus tests and posting out-of-touch sentiments (see: Gwyneth Paltrow telling us to write the next Great American Novel in quarantine, or the chaotic and tone-deaf “Imagine” video).

“You’re seeing a lot of backlash against individual celebrities in a culture that is very celebrity-oriented,” Gosline says. “Brands that are selling hedonistic products, like fashion or beauty, need to be particularly careful about further signaling this social stratification.”

In the face of this uncertainty, and perhaps as a reaction to the consumerism that characterized the past decade, many consumers are choosing to hoard their cash and hunker down. Or, in the words of one consumer I spoke to, “I’m saving my money for the next Great Depression we’ll be having.”

Relatedly, hobbies that offer a comforting sense of self-sufficiency, like baking or gardening, are now booming — yeast and flour have been flying off the shelves. One consumer told me she was investing in a Le Creuset Dutch oven so she could finally fulfill her sourdough dreams. Even if the economy’s going to hell, at least she’ll have her starter.

Consumers who are deciding to shop might opt to use their splurges to support local small businesses that have a tangible place in their community, and are more impacted by closures. New luxury items from flashy DTC companies headquartered in Silicon Valley don’t feel as gratifying. For many DTC companies, however, things were already rocky before the coronavirus hit: Early in March, Maya Kosoff reported at Marker that brands like Outdoor Voices, Casper, and Harry’s were imploding, unable to become close to profitable or meet investors’ expectations. Once coronavirus hit retail, news of layoffs and furloughs, along with aggressive sales promotions, came quickly.

On March 27, Everlane, a modern basics retailer that built its brand on the tagline “Radical Transparency,” laid off nearly all members of its 65-person remote “customer experience” team. Those laid off say that they were targeted for forming and joining the Everlane Union, which was seeking recognition from the company. Everlane’s founder responded by saying the layoffs were a result of the coronavirus crisis and that the company is not profitable. A few days later, Everlane announced an unprecedented sale of 25% off site-wide. (“We’ve never done it before. But there are a lot of firsts right now” the email read.) Still, shoppers might be hesitant to purchase from a brand that isn’t taking care of its own employees amid a pandemic.

These aggressive promotions also risk making consumers feel like they’re being cornered while emotionally vulnerable and spending more time at home and online.

“Decision-making under greater scarcity and greater uncertainty can make people less rational and more short-term focused,” Gosline says. “It’s a risky move [for brands] to say in this moment, ‘I know you’re at home, so why don’t you shop?’ These tone-deaf type of messages could really prove to lead to some backlash.”

The line between checking in on and trying to be of service to consumers versus profiteering during a moment of panic can be a fine one, and today’s empowered consumers are savvy enough to tell the difference.

One consumer I spoke with noted “the widespread and aggressive promotional strategy of retailers who had to close their brick-and-mortar shops.” Still, she admitted she’s interested. “I’m incredibly tempted to buy new cozy loungewear that I’ve always wanted but never was able to justify before.”

Panic and uncertainty can also lead to impulsive decision-making. Another consumer I spoke to mentioned buying a new dress on sale one day and buyer’s remorse kicking in the next, as the economy began tanking: “Shit hit the fan, and I started regretting the decision to spend money on nonessential items.” In a stroke of luck, the dress had sold out and her order was canceled.

For retailers attempting to navigate and respond to an increasingly dire news cycle, it takes a lot of diligence. O’Meara told me that to not make a misstep during this moment, he reads every single comment on Huckberry’s Instagram and every single email from subscribers.

“We have a meeting every morning to recap the day before, the message that went out, and the customer feedback,” he says.

Ultimately, staying home is the most service many white-collar workers can offer to the cultural moment. It doesn’t feel as engaged as protesting, though homebody brands will try to make consumers feel like heroes for not getting out of their pajamas all day — heroes who deserve to add a little something to their online carts for doing their part. This is nothing new: Makeup brands turned buying red lipstick into an act of service during World War II. Ads encouraged women to give the men fighting overseas something to dream about by wearing shades like Patriot Red, “in defense of glamour.”

The deluge of quarantine homebody sales is likely to continue. For some, they provide a useful distraction, or hope for life beyond coronavirus: a bathing suit as passport to a future where Americans can go to the beach this summer. For others, like the woman I spoke to who is using the opportunity to test out a new expensive retinol, it’s helping them find the silver lining in their new homebound life. “If I peel massively, no one will know, and I could have nice baby skin on the other side of quarantine.”

The other side of quarantine — it’s hard to imagine what it will be like. But one thing I know: Once the world does make it to the other side, no brand will be able to convince me that staying in is the new going out.

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.