In the five months since the coronavirus forced a lockdown of U.S. businesses, economists have focused much attention on the devastation of mom-and-pop businesses, brick-and-mortar shops, bars and restaurants, and massive chains. But they have mostly overlooked a looming threat to a vastly larger and more consequential galaxy of businesses, one worth trillions of dollars a year in GDP and revolving around a single, much underappreciated economic actor — the white-collar office worker.
These workers shopped at small businesses like Silva’s shoe repair shop: dry cleaners, gyms, food carts, florists, and pharmacies. But they were also among the most vital customers and source of revenue for a slew of larger, less obvious businesses — food delivery companies like Grubhub and Uber Eats, and companies like Xerox, the maker of printing supplies. Amid Covid-19, workwear destinations Brooks Brothers and J.Crew have filed for bankruptcy protection, with Brooks Brothers selling itself last month. And, on its quarterly earnings call in late July, Starbucks attributed the loss of some $2 billion year on year to deserted urban office corridors. Starting off their day at home, remote workers are simply not queueing up in the same numbers for a morning venti latte.
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