Post-COVID Israel: More Cars and Remote Work, Less Time at the Mall

As the pandemic lockdown comes to an end, a survey asks people which of their habits they expect will change. Is Israel ready for the new era?

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Cars in traffic in central Tel Aviv, December 4, 2019.
Cars in traffic in central Tel Aviv, December 4, 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

What is Israel going to look like as people here emerge from the trauma of the coronavirus pandemic? That’s what a survey of 506 adults conducted by the management consulting firm TASC and the data-collection agency i-Panel sought to find out.

What it found was that Israelis were moving away from supermarket shopping in favor of their neighborhood grocery store. They are buying more online and accessing more services on the internet, including remote medicine. The question remains, how ready is Israeli business and infrastructure to adjust to the changes ahead?

They are also giving up on public transportation in favor of their cars. The survey found that 41% of Israelis said they planned on using buses and trains less, nearly two thirds of them saying they planned to cut back significantly.

That said, more (44%) said the coronavirus would not affect their travel habits and 15% said they planned to rely more than before on public transportation. Why would people risk contagion by traveling in close quarters on a bus or train? The survey didn’t ask, but it could be because the pandemic has left so many Israelis in financial straits.

The survey revealed that 34% of Israelis said they would be using their cars more often. Some 12% said they would be start carpooling and only 5% said they were planning on alternatives like bicycles or electric scooters.

That threatens to clog Israel’s already crowded roads further, unless there’s a big increase in working from home or the government takes steps to get people out of their cars. The survey found that one effective step, which the government is in fact weighing, would be to impose a congestion tax on cars. If it does, 42% said that would alter their mode of travel, although not in favor of public transportation: Only 8% they would start using that, fewer than the 10% who said they would opt for a scooter. Nearly a quarter said they would rather work at home during peak commuting hours to avoid the tax.

The two-and-a-half-month lockdown taught many Israelis the benefits of remote work. Only about 4% of working Israelis were working at home before the pandemic struck, but according to the TASC/i-Panel survey, 30% now expect to work a mix of office and home work in the future. That could mean starting the work day at home and going to the office later or alternating days at home and days at the office.

In the meantime, more than half of the respondents who had planned to buy a new car in the next two years are now having second thoughts.

A bus in Tel Aviv with no access or exit from the front door in order to protect the driver from potential contagion by passengers, Marh 15, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Remote medicine

The pandemic not only forced people to work from home but in many cases left them no choice but to see their doctor virtually. Even before the onset of the pandemic, health care providers, in particular the health maintenance organizations, had been deploying more and more remote medicine solutions like video calls with family doctors.

Even so, remote medicine hasn’t yet proven itself to be more economical than face-to-face medicine. In addition, health care providers encountered resistance from patients and doctors alike.

From the patient side, at least, the TASC/i-Panel survey showed that the resistance is fading. It found that a third of Israelis are now using remote medicine, up from 20% before the pandemic lockdown. The increase included sectors of the population that haven’t used remote medicine until now – for instance among people aged 60 and older, the use of virtual doctors appointments grew to 50% of the total from 21%.

The biggest increase came among the ultra-Orthodox population – from 7% of the respondents before the coronavirus to 21% today. Among Israeli Arabs the rate grew to 31% from 24%.

Whether this marks a permanent change in habits is too early to say. The survey offered a mixed picture: Only half said they were interested in continuing to use virtual medicine because they don’t believe that virtual diagnostic tools are as exacting or comprehensive as the ones used in the clinic.

Israel’s retail sector has been shaken up even more than medicine by the coronavirus. Market trends that had been underway for years, such a growing preference for supermarkets over groceries and shopping malls over downtowns, reversed during the lockdown weeks. It’s too early to tell whether the shift is permanent.

The TASC/i-Panel survey revealed that 44% of Israelis questioned said they had changed their shopping habits on the matter of supermarkets versus groceries during the pandemic, two thirds of them saying the change was in favor of groceries. They reason that supermarket shopping exposes them to big crowds and the risk of contagion and the chains take too long to deliver online orders.

Nevertheless, there’s no reason yet for the big food retailers to worry because 70% of the respondents said they planned to return to their old shopping behavior.

Shopping malls have more of a reason to be concerned: The poll found that 43% of the respondents said they would be going to the malls less than before the crisis. Only 7% said they would shop at malls more and the rest said they planned no change.

A street of closed shops amid the coronavirus crisis in Jerusalem, March 18, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

That could spell trouble for the big retail chains, which generate most of their turnover at big enclosed malls. During the lockdown, when malls were closed, the chains brick-and-mortar sales collapsed and a surge in e-commerce failed to make up the difference. The TASC/i-Panel survey found that Israelis had increased online food purchases by 20% but in other categories purchases fell – by 30% for apparel, by 17% for toys, by 20% for electronics and 8% for cosmetics.

It’s more clear that the coronavirus is going to change the way Israelis pay for goods and services. The survey found that 71% of Israelis intend to use advanced payment solutions, such as the apps offered by banks, digital wallets such as PayPal and contactless credit cards.

Raised awareness

The poll revealed that the lockdown raised consumer awareness of the options they had and how convenient they are, on top of the advantage they have of not requiring any physical contact with surfaces that might have the virus. In turn, TASC said, more businesses are expected to offer advanced payment apps as an option and accept a wider range of apps. Credit card use is expected to decline.

However, contact credit cards, which today can only be used at a tiny minority of businesses equipped with the required EMV technology, is expected to grow independent of the coronavirus’ effect. The Bank of Israel is requiring businesses to install EMV technology at cash registered by the end of November.

The lockdown produced a surge of internet traffic in Israel as people worked from home and relied on it for shopping, entertainment and communications more than ever. Since the lockdown has eased, internet use has returned to normal, according to providers

But the TASC/i-Panel survey said the patterns of internet established during the lockdown are here to stay. It found that 30% of respondents had upgraded the content package they had been getting. Subscribing to streaming services, such as Netflix, were the big reason for that and 80% of the respondents who said they subscribed to a new service said they planned to keep it.

About half those surveyed said they experienced trouble with the internet, which is no surprise because Israel has lagged in developing its network. Most traffic runs on phone lines and faster fiber optic cables have been deployed slowly.

The lockdown had the effect of encouraging two groups that have traditionally used the internet a lot less than others, if at all, to reconsider. Among Haredim and Israelis Arabs, a quarter told TASC/i-Panel pollsters that they had upgraded their internet speed during the pandemic.

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