A funny thing happened on the way to a pandemic recession: Oregonians kept spending money.
This September, as state economist Josh Lehner examined retail figures, he braced himself for spreadsheets showing calamity. The virus that emptied the streets of Portland and turned Pioneer Place into a ghost town had surely mowed a swath through the American economy.
That's not what he saw.
In fact, consumer spending nationwide had dropped by just a handful of percentage points. Instead of declining, purchases changed.
Lehner says the difference between this economic shutdown and the last recession is that, once the shock wore off from the stay-home orders, many people realized they still had paychecks but none of the usual places to spend them.
"What we've really seen is this shift in what we're buying—and really, what we're allowed to buy," Lehner says. "We can't go out to eat, we can't get our hair cut. So what do we do?"
We changed our habits. Couples who once planned date nights at their favorite bistro instead picked recipes to cook. Living rooms turned into movie theaters, and the movies were a backdrop for hours of knitting. Home repair projects became ways of saving sanity.
In short, people who could no longer purchase social experiences bought physical objects: vegetables, yarn, and cedar planks for backyard fences. And for people in the position to supply those goods, the new habits were a bonanza.
Dozens of industries didn't just survive 2020—they were swimming in cash. Some Portland small businesses saw demand triple in a matter of weeks.
"The incomes for the vast majority of Americans aren't down," says Lehner. "They're up or they're flat. So we've seen a big boost in sales of any physical product that doesn't require a lot of in-person interaction. Those sales are not only up relative to last year. They're up up."
Think about it this way: You probably know someone who bought a puppy or kitten for company during the pandemic. Maybe a couple people. Multiply that across the state. Then think about the ongoing needs those animals have: dog chow, chew toys, litter boxes. That's an entire industry that just saw its annual sales spike by 12%.
For many of us, this was a year without any such silver linings. Oregon's hospitals are nearing capacity, and more people will soon die of a virus we failed to control. People lost their jobs without warning; others saw the dreams they worked for years to fulfill dashed because customers stayed home. Many of our favorite bars and restaurants won't return from the latest freeze.
But a picture of the year—and the outsized role COVID-19 played in it—isn't complete without a look at the unanticipated winners.
In the following pages, we examine eight Oregon industries that thrived in 2020. (We kick off each profile with the nationwide year-over-year upswings for each consumer spending sector, according to October figures from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.) We found people dazed by their good fortune, scrambling to meet demand, and feeling a little guilty about their windfall.
It's not clear how long that luck will last. One of the most interesting questions created by the pandemic is whether the new habits it formed will stick. Lehner doubts it. "After a vaccine, we're going to go back to eating and vacations and haircuts," he says.
But America's biggest shopping season opened last week. And for now, this is what Oregonians are buying.
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