Corporate smoke signals
By Michael Gregson
COVID-19 has produced some very clear winners and losers in the business world. Food delivery companies like Uber Eats and PickMe have thrived as more customers shop online to avoid the hassle of donning a mask, repeated handwashing and temperature checks, which are all now part and parcel of going to supermarkets or eating out in a restaurant.
The online delivery services can now expect a boost from the new restrictions being introduced in Sri Lanka and much of the rest of the world as the dreaded second wave of COVID-19 takes hold.
Manufacturers and distributors of personal protection equipment like Sri Lanka’s Brandix have been flooded with orders from overseas – though that appears not to be entirely without problems.
Thanks to lockdowns and home schooling, there’s been a revival in the use of home printers, despite the inevitable paper jams, low ink and driver errors that go with them.
One obvious cause for the sudden increase in interest is the pivot to work-from-home: banished from the office, people who needed access to a printer for work may have rushed to buy one. Another major factor says Gary Tierney, HP’s UK & Ireland print lead, is home-schooling, with parents wanting to print out handouts and worksheets to educate their children, or simply keep them entertained away from the screen.
For Tierney, the surge shows the enduring importance of the printed page, even in an increasingly digital world. “The shift to work-from-home and learn-from-home, and the impact of the pandemic, has pretty much changed everything – and for us, certainly shone a light on how essential print is in that new world,” he says.
On the downside, due to the social distancing protocols introduced around the world, companies in the leisure, entertainment, hospitality and aviation sectors are fighting for their lives. Just ask hotel owners in Sri Lanka and the thousands of workers who depended on international tourism.
But another sector can now be added to the group of winners – tobacco – at least in some parts of the world, with Britons smoking their way through the COVID-19 crisis.
Working from home may have prompted a rise in smoking at home, said a tobacco giant that operates in 160 countries and owns brands such as John Player Special and Winston cigarettes.
Imperial Brands, the Bristol-based tobacco company, said that it had experienced “certain COVID-19-related changes in consumer behaviour” with “increased overall demand against our expectations”.
A spokesman for Imperial said: “Where people are working from home there tends to be greater opportunities to light up.”
The company said the tobacco business “continued to perform well despite an uncertain and disrupted trading environment.” Consumers appear to have “allocated more of their spending money to tobacco”, Imperial said in a recent full-year trading update.
Public health bodies and campaigners in the UK have been seeking to encourage people to quit smoking this month as part of the “Stoptober” challenge.
Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, said this year that “it is abundantly clear from research into previous COVID-19 that smoking makes the impact of COVID-19 worse”. Chris Whitty, the chief medical of England and Wales has said: “If you are going to give up smoking, this is a very good moment to do it.”
Anecdotal evidence from around the world suggests that as stress levels have increased due to lockdown, smokers have been lighting up more. For example, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) says there has been an 87 per cent increase in blazes caused by smoking materials during the COVID-19 crisis.
Evidence from a number of other countries, including the US, Ireland, Poland, Australia and Singapore, suggest that stress related to the pandemic has led to an increase in smoking. But British American Tobacco, the world’s second-biggest tobacco company, said in June that its sales in some emerging markets had been hit by the pandemic as strict lockdowns affected the ability of some smokers to get out to the shops.
And all the major tobacco companies have been hit by the decline in international air travel and the accompanying drop in sales of their products at duty-free outlets.
Of course travellers are banned from bringing any cigarettes into Sri Lanka – though there are plenty of opportunities to buy duty-free tobacco on the way home – or will be once BIA reopens.