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Who Dares To Rent A Dress Now? Coronavirus Upends The Sharing Economy


Airbnb, Uber, Rent the Runway are all companies that have thrived by convincing people to share - homes, cars and even clothing. Now, people have stopped sharing during the pandemic for fear of spreading the coronavirus, and some of these sharing companies are evolving to meet the challenge of a recession paired with a health crisis. NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more for this week's All Tech Considered.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Kim Timko used to rely on Rent the Runway. She used the clothing rental service to get dresses for weddings and parties, outfits for date nights, professional clothes for her job as a lawyer in New York.

KIM TIMKO: It's, like, a nice way to, like, have expensive clothes without having to, like, buy.

BOND: Then COVID-19 hit. Weddings have been postponed, parties canceled. She's working from home. She says right now, renting clothes just isn't worth the money or the risk of getting the virus by touching items that other people have worn.

TIMKO: Any packages I get, I wipe them down. I'm, like, sanitizing them. So you can't really do that with a dress. Like, you can't, like, Lysol it.

BOND: So Timko, like a lot of other Rent the Runway users, has put her $159 monthly subscription on hold, and she's thinking about canceling it entirely. Rent the Runway says there's no evidence the virus spreads through clothing, and it thoroughly cleans all items between customers. But the company admits it's taken a big financial hit from the pandemic. It's laid off and furloughed staff and closed its stores. And it's not the only sharing company that's been squeezed.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Airbnb is laying off nearly 1,900 employees.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Thirty-five-hundred employees at Uber learned they were losing their jobs...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Lyft has laid off about 17% of its workforce.

BOND: These companies were all founded after the Great Recession. They upended traditional industries by giving people a way to enjoy expensive things without having to buy them outright. But now the pandemic is threatening to upend their businesses.

Airbnb expects its sales this year to be, at best, half of what they were last year. But the company says people have started to plan travel again to places they can drive to. Take Murry Evans. He's sick of being cooped up in his Atlanta condo, so he's booked some weekend getaways to the north Georgia mountains.

MURRY EVANS: It's just been to get out of the house and get, you know, into the outdoors where I can go hiking and that kind of thing. And it's been fine.

BOND: Evans says staying at an Airbnb feels like less of a risk than going to movie theaters, which have recently reopened in Georgia. He brings along disinfectant wipes to clean doorknobs and refrigerator handles, the places people touch a lot.

EVANS: My sense is if I take the proper precautions, it's going to be just like I'd take the precautions when I'm in my own home.

BOND: And for some sharing companies, the pandemic may even create opportunities for more business, like Turo, a service that allows you to rent other people's cars. Alexis Jordan has been using it to get from her home in Washington, D.C., to her job at a hospital in Bethesda, Md. Before the coronavirus, she commuted by bus.

ALEXIS JORDAN: A lot of people would get on the bus and not wear a mask. And I just feel like Metro wasn't really taking the proper precautions. I felt more exposed to it.

BOND: Uber didn't seem like a great option, either, even though the company is now requiring all drivers and passengers to wear masks.

JORDAN: Because I'm still in close proximity with someone else.

BOND: She wears a mask when picking up her car and carries wipes to clean everything she touches. Turo says demand is coming back, thanks to commuters and people who just want to get out of the house. Uber is also seeing more rides during rush hour.

Alexis Jordan says it could be a year or two before she gets back on the bus. She is considering buying her own car and renting it out on Turo to help cover the cost.

Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.