Many Businesses Struggle to Stay Alive, Tech Savvy Businesses Thrive
Roopinder Tara posted on September 08, 2020 |
The story of Dominos, telehealth and home improvement during the pandemic.

What does bad pizza, a new addition to your house and telehealth all have in common? They are reflective of businesses that have thrived during the pandemic. Let’s say technology has played a part.

COVID-19 may well be the worst pandemic in modern history. As of the time of writing, it has sickened 27 million worldwide and killed over 880,000. The economies of every country are in tailspins. However, a few businesses have not only survived during the pandemic but have also thrived. What many have in common is their adoption of the latest technology.

Seeking Deliverance

(Picture courtesy of restaurant.org.)
(Picture courtesy of restaurant.org.)

Restaurants have been among the hardest hit of all businesses. In the U.S., 15,000 have closed their doors, with 60 percent of them not expected to reopen. But a few that employed technology to its fullest before the pandemic began have emerged better off, using technology to cater to a clientele that sees a packed restaurant as a threat rather than an attraction.

Cheaper by the dozen. Domino Pizza rolls out e-bike delivery. Modified Rad Power bikes fitted with the company's insulated cargo containers on the front and back with capacity for 12 large pizzas. (Picture courtesy of Domino.)
Cheaper by the dozen. Domino's Pizza rolls out e-bike delivery. Modified Rad Power bikes fitted with the company's insulated cargo containers on the front and back with capacity for 12 large pizzas. (Picture courtesy of Domino's.)

Domino’s invested millions in technology. In 2009, Domino’s then-president Patrick Doyle acknowledged that its pizza was the worst after listening to ex-customers comparing it to cardboard (see YouTube). Doyle rebooted the company’s products with “real cheese” -- and a big topping of technology. When the pandemic hit and the public switched—almost overnight—from eating in to having food delivered, Domino's was ready. You can order a Domino's pizza with a Tweet to @Dominos and simply using the pizza emoji. Every smart speaker is listening for your Domino's order. You can Slack for a pizza, too. Domino’s may even be listening in on the U.S. president’s direct line to the Kremlin—the company delivers to both Washington, D.C. and Moscow.

The Domino’s app is the easiest way to order we’ve ever heard of. In 2016, the app introduced a “zero click” feature. Simply opening the app starts a 10 second timer. Do nothing, and your favorite pizza will be ordered and sent to you. Interrupt the timer to order something else—and watch toppings fall down to your pizza.

How could bad pizza get worse? It could be cold when it arrives. Recently, the company rolled out hundreds of e-bikes in a handful of cities. To prevent its pizzas from being delivered cold, the e-bikes have specially designed insulated boxes front and rear. With a top speed of 20 mph and parking in the big city not a problem, your e-bike delivery will be faster than an automobile delivery, says Domino’s.

Domino’s last quarter earnings (July 2020) showed that U.S. same-store sales were up 16 percent. The company’s revenue for the quarter was $920 million, beating expectations. During the same time, the collective restaurant industry lost an estimated $120 billion.

Automated Warehouses

A swarm of robotic vehicles move products from one place to another in an Amazon sorting center. (Picture courtesy of Amazon.)
A swarm of robotic vehicles move products from one place to another in an Amazon sorting center. (Picture courtesy of Amazon.)

Amazon, one of the world’s largest tech companies, also uses delivery services in completing the “last mile” from the warehouse to the customer, as well as makes ample use of technology in its warehouses and sorting centers. The most remarkable use of technology in these facilities is the swarm of yellow and black “drive units” that take a purchased product to a chute that corresponds to the zip code of its destination. Amazon also uses robotic arms with grippers that take products off conveyors and place them on pallets in their warehouses. Another type of robot arm used by the company lifts pallets to and from floors and shelves.

The pandemic initially caught Amazon off guard. Feeling its effects, Jeff Bezos asked at an investor meeting if there were any Amazon shareholders present, and if so, they might want to sit down. But after pouring $4 billion into stabilizing its supply chain and improving worker safety, the company recovered to post its best quarter ever with $89 billion in sales.

Across the country, warehouse have taken to using automation to replace sidelined workers. Automated sorting units sort piles of apparel at the American Eagle Outfitters warehouse in Hazleton, Pa., using mechanical arms, computer vision and AI.

Stanley (owners of DeWalt, Craftsman brands) spent $1.5 million on cobots (collaborative robots) to its South Carolina plant that makes electric hand tools. The cobots kept the factory up and operating even though many workers were not able to return due to COVID-19.

DIY Building Boom

Sales of hand tools, shop tools and other tools of the construction trade, as well as material and supplies, have taken off as DIYers remodel the homes they are stuck in during the pandemic—and perhaps finally getting to projects they have been putting off.

Building supply stores like Home Depot and Lowe’s cannot keep up with demand. Lowe’s quarterly sales were up 35 percent compared to the same stores a year ago, with a total revenue of $27 billion. Home Depot recently posted its biggest quarterly sales growth in almost 20 years, with sales up 23 percent to $38 billion.

Turn off Mute and Say Aah

A doctor explains an intravenous injection to a patient with the aid of a training arm x using telehealth. (Stock photo.)
A doctor explains an intravenous injection to a patient with the aid of a training arm x using telehealth. (Stock photo.)

While most doctors closed their offices and deferred all but the most critical care and put all elective procedures on hold, Kaiser-Permanente, the nation’s largest HMO, was able to take advantage of the technology it had been putting into place. Kaiser had centralized patient data and was already using a network of doctors when every other medical practice was based on single doctors or small groups of doctors. Kaiser patients had access to doctors 24 hours a day. The company had in place a video conference system (like Zoom) for those who could were unable to get to a doctor’s office. Telehealth was barely used before the pandemic (1 percent of scheduled visits), but as health care workers became increasingly worried about catching COVID-19 from their patients, telehealth became a necessity. In April, 74 percent of “visits” in the Kaiser-Permanente system were by phone and video.

Telehealth is now the only way some health care providers will see patients. So pervasive has it become that industry observers forecast that telehealth is here to stay, pandemic or not.

Foreign IT Service—Built for a Pandemic

Foreign IT service, which every comic can count on for laughs by saying “Hello, this is Mike from tech support” with an Indian accent, is no longer a laughing matter. EPAM uses 32,300 professionals, many of them programmers from the former Soviet Union, to service American and European companies. EPAM has been able to take advantage of the needs of businesses that send their own IT staff home to work only to discover that work-from-home is supported neither by infrastructure nor culture. Looking around for those accustomed to working remotely, those companies can easily land on the websites of IT support companies suited to remote work like EPAM.

EPAM’s revenue($632 million) surpassed expectations by 6 percent in its last quarter (ending June 2020).

Reference

Most Businesses Were Unprepared for Covid-19. Domino’s Delivered, Wall Street Journal, September 6, 2020.

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