Off Brand

How the Roomba Became the Pandemic’s Unlikeliest Winner

In the midst of a recession, even the company was surprised by the increased demand for a $1,000 vacuum

Rob Walker
Published in
6 min readJun 25, 2020
Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns via flickr/CC BY 2.0

Over the past few months of pandemic-fueled economic contraction, company after company has announced that its financial performance would be much worse than anticipated. There have been some obvious exceptions, like Zoom, and a few surprising ones, from Domino’s to King Arthur Flour. But here’s an overperformer hardly anybody seemed to anticipate: iRobot, maker of the Roomba — the pie-sized robotic vacuum device that tools around, guided by sensors, sucking up dust (and sometimes humorously interacting with pets) in homes around the world.

You know the Roomba—it’s been part of many domestic landscapes for years. People have given their Roombas names and formed subtle attachments to the devices. Some users “genuinely worry about their Roombas, as if they were living pets,” one study found. Artists and technologists learned to hack them, and the Roomba memes never stop. But no one predicted the robot vacuum would become the hot seller of the pandemic.

Still, even iRobot was evidently surprised to find itself scooting away from what it thought would be a big pandemic-recession blow to sales. “Our anticipated second-quarter 2020 financial performance will be substantially better than we originally expected,” CEO Colin Angle said in a recent statement. The company had previously suggested revenue would come in “modestly” lower than the first-quarter figure of $193 million. (Analysts reportedly projected a not-so-modest 30% drop.) But now the company, which formally reports earnings next month, anticipates quarterly revenue of $260 million or more — a healthy uptick. The statement specifically singled out “robust order growth for premium products,” such as the top-end s9 series Roomba, priced at an eyebrow-raising $1,000.

It can be hard to take the Roomba seriously as a triumphant tech product, because it resembles nobody’s vision of the future. It is not sexily powerful, it is not appealingly beneficent, it is not darkly…