From lipsticks to lattes, commuter-friendly businesses struggle to adjust to empty streets

The slump in caffeine fixes has been so pronounced that global exports of coffee beans have taken a hit.
A food stand in Hudson Yards during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City on May 14, 2020.
A food stand in Hudson Yards during the coronavirus pandemic in New York City on May 14.Noam Galai / Getty Images

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By Claire Atkinson

With fewer people making their morning pilgrimages from home to the office, the businesses that served their needs are closing up shop or trying to pivot to new business models.

Brianna Hardee, a law student from Houston who has since graduated, said that on a typical morning, she would wake up at 7 o'clock, do her hair and makeup, grab a Starbucks coffee and a snack and listen to a podcast or her favorite music on Pandora on her drive to her internship or to classes. Now sequestered at home, she makes her morning brew in a Keurig, doesn't wear makeup, no longer listens to music and has filled her car with gas once in the past four months.

"I do miss that 45 minutes of my own time, singing to music as loud as I wanted," Hardee said in a phone interview, "but I really do enjoy not having to drive."

From lipstick to lattes, perfume to podcasts, all manner of ancillary industries have been hit by the end of commuting.

The consulting company McKinsey estimates that revenue for the global beauty industry could be down by as much as 30 percent this year as primping and preening fall to a minimum and masks take the place of lipstick.

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Starbucks expects third-quarter revenue to drop by around $3.2 billion. The slump in caffeine fixes has been so pronounced that the price of coffee beans has taken a hit. In June, the International Coffee Association reported three consecutive months of price declines, with global coffee exports down by almost 2 million bags in May, compared to the same period last year.

With office lunches off the table, Denny's, IHOP and Le Pain Quotidien have all closed locations.

Food trucks have also been hurt by the lack of commuters grabbing early morning snacks or lunch, although some carts were able to move to hospitals.

"Major businesses are seeing that productivity is the same or better at home. Are they going to go back to the city? Are they going to pay those high rents for that real estate when they're getting the same out of employees from home?" asked Dom Tesoriero, a professional chef who runs a truck selling macaroni and cheese in New York.

He sees the food truck business moving to the outer boroughs to smaller satellite offices, a move that could aid growth, he speculated. "That might expand the food truck business."

Henry Watson used to commute to his office in San Francisco, but he now works from home. He used to listen to true crime podcasts on his 30-minute commute on public transit. Now, he listens to music on Spotify on his television, instead.

While he is aware that he has saved some money by staying home, he ponders the implications.

"I probably spent a thousand dollars a month in dumb incidental stuff: the coffee cart, snacks, Ubers all over the place. But I think about the mom and pop shops that are struggling and weren't able to get the Paycheck Protection Program money," Watson said. "You know when they know what you like, and they weren't getting rich. I miss patronizing those kinds of places."

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The news for public transportation companies and for local governments that collect parking ticket revenue isn't good, either. With ridership down by 89 percent on its BART rapid transport system, San Francisco is losing an estimated $40 million per month. Los Angeles just extended a moratorium on parking tickets through August, because so many cars are jostling for parking spots during the day as families stay home.

While Watson is one of many who doesn't miss the daily slog to work and back, commuting time has a role in helping people decompress from their day, psychologist Karen Bridbord said.

"People say, 'Oh, I've got two more hours of time,' but it doesn't always translate in that way. People miss that time to really decompress," she said. "Going from work to engaging with your partner, people don't have that transitional time to get into the different head space."

One silver lining to the dearth of "shopportunities" is that the average personal savings rate hit a record high of 33 percent in April, up from just 7.6 percent in 2019. Bank of America said checking accounts had 30 percent to 40 percent more cash in May than they did in February, before the pandemic, CEO Brian Moynihan told CNBC.