Robot waiters, rubber shoes and 7 more

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Robot waiters, rubber shoes and 7 more

Over the past year, we started figuring out how to live in an (almost) post-pandemic world. Behaviors that once seemed unnatural — working from home, living more digitally, feeling grateful for basics we once took for granted — became second nature.

In 2022, we’re ready for what’s next. And one thing’s for sure: We’re not going back to the old ways. So what can we expect from the new normal?

Here, experts give their predictions for the coming year.

ROBOTIC RESTAURANT WORKERS

Robot restaurant workers
“There are benefits to technology that go beyond quality and consistency,” experts say.
AFP via Getty Images

Staff shortages at restaurants are only getting worse — according to the National Restaurant Association, three out of every four restaurant owners can’t retain enough servers — but demand for in-person dining is returning. What are restaurateurs to do? Hire robots.

Last summer, the Cuban restaurant Sergio’s in Miami, Florida, introduced the newest member of their staff, Servi — created by Silicon Valley company Bear Robotics. Servi, which delivers food and clears dirty dishes, is leased by Sergio’s for around $999 a month — or about $2 to $3 an hour including installation and support — and doesn’t accept tips.

Flippy, a burger-flipping robot from Miso Robotics, made its debut in 2018 at Pasadena-based burger chain CaliBurger, but was fired after one day for flipping burgers too fast. In November, Miso unveiled Flippy 2, a sleeker and more independent version of the kitchen robot, which is poised to officially join the food industry workforce later this year.

“I think the big difference in 2022 is that we’ll likely see actual production deployment of specific devices, such as French fry or pizza robots,” said Jim Collins, President of Perfect Company, a leading provider of technology solutions for the restaurant and hospitality industries.

Adding robots isn’t just about streamlining the cooking process. “It can actually free the kitchen team to focus more on creativity and innovation,” said Collins. “There are benefits to technology that go beyond quality and consistency.”

MINIVANS

Minivans
Critics have described the much-touted 2022 Kia Carnival as “sexy.”
Kia

Since their debut in the ’80s, minivans have never been cool. They’ve been synonymous with soccer moms and considered the last resort for families not hip enough to afford an SUV. But something changed in 2021, with minivan sales jumping 84 percent, according to a Cox Automotive report. New minivan models — like the much-touted 2022 Kia Carnival (above), described by critics as “sexy” — have the same sliding doors and high seats beloved by suburbanites, but now come with a rugged, stylish design.

Part of the minivan renaissance is thanks to COVID. “Minivans speak to our current, pandemic-induced desire to simultaneously cocoon and escape,” said automotive journalist and minivan enthusiast Brett Berk. “They’re literally a living room on wheels.”

Berk also points to a generational shift. “For Gen-Xers who were weaned on station wagons, the practicality of minivans are a revelation,” he said. “And they can be knowingly, slyly contrarian. Like wearing wide-wale corduroy blazers, they’re so uncool, they’re cool.”

WANDERLUST DATING

Wanderlust dating
Today’s daters crave more than dinner and a movie.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

After sitting at home for nearly two years, singles are “craving adventure and are up for anything,” said Talia Goldstein, the founder and president of matchmaking service Three Day Rule.

Today’s daters crave more than dinner and a movie, and they’re willing to travel further than a cab ride can take them. “Pre-pandemic daters would request a radius of 10 miles,” Goldstein says. “Now, clients are open to nationwide matches and even relocating for the right match.”

Tinder Passport, a premium feature that allows users to match with singles around the globe, has been around since 2015 but peaked in popularity last year. In 2021, Tinder members “passported” to an average of four cities and two countries. And 76 percent made matches in a country that speaks a language different than their own.

“To avoid flirtations getting lost in translation, we’ve partnered with [language-learning platform] Duolingo to give 100,000 Tinder members a free month of Duolingo Plus,” said a spokesperson for the company.

VENDING MACHINES

vending machines
Pizza vending machines have become especially popular — even in Rome.
Getty Images

Gone are the days when vending machines only sold soda, snacks or cigarettes. Now, a new wave of small business owners are using them to sell everything from $30 mini-bottles of champagne (Fort Lauderdale) to 45 types of hard pretzels (Delray Beach) to butcher-cut raw meat (Tampa). Northern Michigan recently opened the first 24-hour goat cheese vending machine, launched by goat creamery Idyll Farms. And cannabis vending machines have popped up in California and Colorado. A Japanese airline, Peach Aviation, has even started selling “mystery” domestic flights from its vending machines. (Customers don’t pick where they’re going, the routes are assigned randomly.)

Pizza vending machines have become especially popular — even in Rome, Italy (above) — with hundreds appearing around the country just last year. At the San Antonio International Airport, a pizza vending machine — which can cook 10-inch brick-oven pizza in just a few minutes — was added in late 2021 because terminal restaurants “were having a difficult time hiring qualified employees,” said Jennifer Mills Pysher, the airport’s Chief Commercial Officer.

The machine was so popular Pysher said they hope to add more vending machines across the airport and in the baggage waiting area, with a wide array of options like “coffee, ramen, smoothies, fresh salads and sandwiches. And we really want a cupcake machine!”

RUBBER SHOES

rubber shoes
Retail strategist Liza Amlani predicts that rubber shoes will “catapult to new heights” in 2022.

Rubber shoes are having a moment. Puddle Boots, a bright and chunky take on the classic rain boot created by Italian luxury brand Bottega Veneta (above), are flying off shelves, with fans including Justin Bieber and “Black-ish” star Tracee Ellis Ross. Crocs, the foam clog so ugly that Time magazine once named them one of the world’s “worst inventions,” has seen sales climb 65 percent since 2020, after a mostly stagnant decade. Questlove wore a gold pair of Crocs to the 2021 Grammys, and celebrated sneaker designer Salehe Bembury introduced his take on the Crocs brand in December.

Retail strategist Liza Amlani predicts that rubber shoes will “catapult to new heights” in 2022, and not just because the infamous footwear is so comfortable and affordable, with an average price of around $45.

Rubber shoe makers are “aligning their values with customers on sustainability,” says Amlani. The Puddle Boot is Bottega’s first piece made with biodegradable polymer, and Crocs will introduce its first shoes made of biodegradable materials this year, vowing to become net-zero-carbon by 2030.

MALLS

Mall
Visitor numbers for malls in 2021 were up 5 percent over pre-pandemic levels.
AP

The pandemic very nearly rang the death knell for malls — visitation nationwide was down 91 percent in April 2020 — but according to transportation-data company INRIX, visitor numbers for malls in 2021 were up 5 percent over pre-pandemic levels.

Retailers are returning too — Toys “R” Us opened a new flagship store inside the American Dream mall in Bergen County, NJ, its first since closing all stores in 2018 — and real-estate brokerage firm CBRE predicts that 2022 will see a 10-year high for retail stores leasing at malls.

Some malls are offering perks to lure shoppers back. At American Dream, you can brunch with SpongeBob or shop with a “fashion industry icon” for just $3,000. “Shopping is still a social activity,” said retail consultant Georganne Bender. “In a world where many retailers sell the same thing, the experience has become more important than the product.”

Minnesota’s Mall of America, the largest mall on the continent, has tried to give customers “something they can’t find online,” says Jill Renslow, who is executive vice president of business development at the venue. That includes everything from yoga studios to luxury hotels on site.

But the real draw, curiously enough, has been inconveniences that online shopping was supposed to eliminate. Although 2021’s Black Friday was a weeklong affair, with deals not confined to a single day, “we still saw people wait in line early in the morning on Friday,” said Renslow. “They wanted the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season.”

DIGITAL LEARNING

digital learning
Many colleges are offering steep discounts for online-only students.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

Brick-and-mortar universities were forced to take their courses online during the pandemic, and now remote learning is increasingly becoming the norm. Online enrollment for undergraduates, in which students take either some or all of their classes online, rose by 367 percent this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Online MBAs aren’t always cheap, topping out at $140,000 at Carnegie Mellon University. But many colleges are offering steep discounts for online-only students. At the University of North Texas, for instance, the average annual tuition for out-of-state graduate students is $31,540. But for an online MBA, the estimated total cost for the entire program is just $19,464.

“The pandemic accelerated trends that were already in progress,” said Betty Vandenbosch, chief content officer at Coursera, an online-only education platform founded by Stanford professors. She cites a recent survey that found two-thirds of students want more online instruction.

“It’s not necessary for 400 students to sit in a lecture hall for two hours when a recorded video lecture can be as effective,” said Vandenbosch.

And it’s what employers want, too. Sean Gallagher, a Northeastern University professor and author of “The Future of University Credentials,” recently conducted an upcoming study, surveying thousands of C-suite executives. “They’re now more receptive to hiring people who earned educational credentials online,” he said.

PET TRAVEL

pet travel
“Pet-friendliness” was the top search priority for travelers looking to book trips in 2022.
Getty Images

Pet adoptions reached an all-time high during the pandemic, and now that restrictions are loosening, people don’t want to explore the world without their new best friends.

Analytics company Zeta Global found that “pet-friendliness” was the top search priority for travelers looking to book trips in 2022. It was “more important than hotel cleanliness,” says Eric Bamberger, Zeta Global’s senior vice president of hospitality.

Travel companies are now shifting to accommodate animals, from Airbnb introducing AirCover insurance to protect hosts from pet damage, to Hilton Hotels expanding more
properties to be completely pet friendly.

“I suspect that more brands will follow Hilton’s lead,” said travel psychologist Kate Cummins. “People have reprioritized their needs during the pandemic, and staying connected to things they love, such as their pets, will be something we see people need in the upcoming year with travel.”

FUNKY POPCORN

Nick Jonas eats popcorn
Celebs like Scottie Pippen and the Jonas Brothers are now selling their own popcorn brands.
The Naked Market/MEGA

With the rise of pandemic-era binge-watching, popcorn sales are up 9 percent in 2021, according to market-research firm Information Resources, Inc. And customers aren’t just buying the microwave snack that’s been around for decades.

New and sometimes bizarre popcorn flavors have overtaken the market, infusing kernels with everything from Cheetos-dust to booze. Celebs like Scottie Pippen and the Jonas Brothers are now selling their own popcorn brands, and in November, late night host Stephen Colbert created a two-minute commercial for a small Minnesota popcorn shop, narrated by Nick Offerman, who effused, “Damn, this stuff is good.”

AMC Entertainment, the largest movie-theater chain in the US, recently announced plans to start selling their popcorn — they make around 50 tons of it each day — in stores and mall kiosks around the country. They’re also launching a popcorn delivery service so you can munch away at the movies in the comfort of your home.

It remains to be seen if other movie chains follow AMC’s lead, but retail strategist Amlani suspects that in 2022, “popcorn could become the new pizza.”

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