At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like everything essential was in short supply. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, dumbbells, flour, and even baby wipes were nearly impossible to find as we all hunkered down for what we had no idea would be more than a year of quarantine. But now, as pandemic restrictions ease in the U.S., so too does our once-overwhelming inclination to hoard. If our lives are (slowly) returning, shouldn’t the availability of the things we want to buy get back to normal too?
As it turns out, no. Soaring demand from our lockdown lives and fewer workers have left suppliers strapped for major materials like lumber and aluminum — not to mention the semiconductors that power everything from our cars to our laptops. Those shortages trickle down into less-major things, too, which means that, Girl Scout cookies aside, lots of products are hard to come by. If you’re among the millions of Americans who bought a pandemic house, you may be struggling to get materials to build a new deck or repair a fence. Or maybe you’re just trying to get your hands on a can of your dog’s favorite wet food, a set of patio furniture for under $1,000, or a Playstation 5. Maybe you’ve finally decided to buy a used Subaru, if you could just locate a dealership that has one, or you went to re-up on your go-to organic cotton underwear, only to find the price has risen $2 per pair. Whatever your need, if you want something right now, you may well have to either pay a lot more to get it or find a suitable alternative.
To find out why this is happening, we talked to more than a dozen supply-chain experts: a director of the MIT Center of Transportation and Logistics, a shipping-and-transportation entrepreneur, purchasing directors, DTC-brand founders, interior designers, contractors, and others. Jon Silverman, a product SVP at Grove Collaborative, outlined three distinct phases of the past 15 months: The first involved massive COVID-related delays in shipments out of China; the second was marked by the 30 to 100 percent increase in pandemic purchases of consumer products like toilet paper and paper towels; and the third (our current phase) is tied to a major transportation jam that’s occurred now that Chinese manufacturing is up and running. The rush to ship out goods has meant there’s “900 million containers trying to enter the U.S. all at once.” This is, of course, especially bad news for smaller and mid-size businesses, points out Sarah Barnes-Humphrey, host of the podcast Let’s Talk Supply Chain: “The longer your product is out on the water or in transit and can’t get to your consumer … that’s a huge hit to the bottom line,” she says. Mom-and-pop prices are inevitably going to have to go up, and we’re already seeing DTC brands like Knickey and Clare Paint emailing their customers to warn them of that.
We’re also experiencing the fallout of the so-called just-in-time-based inventory models that have become increasingly popular in recent decades. “Companies don’t want to hold inventory because it costs capital, so they outsource a lot of their supply,” explains FreightWaves CEO Craig Fuller. But now they’re experiencing unprecedented numbers of orders, because, as Fuller says, “the government is putting so much money into the economy.” Or in the words of Jeremy Bodenhamer, co-founder and CEO of shipping software company ShipHawk, “Everybody is buying everything under the sun right now,” and “companies have no surplus to support the huge increases in demand.” According to Fuller, “inventory is at the lowest we’ve ever seen in almost every category.” Especially big-ticket items: “Cars can take eight to ten months from the time you order; furniture has sometimes lead times of three to six months,” he says.
Our experts also talked about dearths of everything from grow lamps (newly popular in the wave of marijuana legalization) to sex toys (a lesser-publicized casualty of the aforementioned microchip shortage). In all of our conversations, however, one thing we didn’t hear was a guess for when the situation would be resolved. There’s just no way to know. As economics reporter Ben Casselman put it in a May episode of The Daily podcast: “I have no idea what is happening in the economy right now. Check back here in six months, and I will tell you what has happened in the economy over this period.”
While we wait for stock lows and cost highs to even out, the only course of action, other than patience, is finding our next-best buying options. That’s just the sort of challenge we embrace at The Strategist, so to inspire you through these times of scarcity, we compiled a list of supply-chain-related shopping conundrums that you may be experiencing, big and small, along with our finds for similar products that you can get right now. We should also note that multiple experts we spoke to suggested that even more things will soon be seeing an increase in cost and a decrease in availability. In fact, they actually recommended beginning your holiday shopping this summer, to make sure you get those gifts in time. If that’s something that just doesn’t appeal to you — and we’re right there with you — don’t worry. We’ll keep finding equally fantastic (and available) alternatives and updating this story.
Lastly: If there are any additional products that you’ve had trouble finding, please email us at email@example.com and let us know. We’ll do our best to find an alternative for you and possibly include it in a future update.
I need a non-corporate-looking office chair for my apartment, but the Ikea ones I love are out of stock everywhere.
Office chairs, especially the nice and not-so-corporate-looking ones, have been in high demand since the spring of 2020, when many of us realized we’d be working from home for more than just a few weeks. Ikea doesn’t have a timeline for restocking these chairs, but we tracked down some equally stylish white, beige, and light gray options that are worthy of your consideration. A chair we found on Wayfair comes in the same calming light beige as both Ikea chairs. The silhouette is different, but it’s attractive and not overtly business-y.
Another option, from DTC home-office brand Branch, is stylish enough to fit in with the rest of your furniture, comes in three tranquil colors, and will ship to you no later than the end of July.
What’s a cool plant alternative to this monstera that’s going for $10,000?
We’ve heard from growers and garden-center owners that tropical plants (including already rare five-figure monsteras) are in short supply due to increased demand during quarantine: As people started working from home and stopped going out, their appetites and budgets for rare plants that would get them tons of followers on Instagram increased. This variegated monstera plant is highly desirable because of its half-moon leaf pattern, meaning one side of the leaf is green and the other is white. But if you want to pay about a thousand times less, Justin Hancock of Costa Farms says a variegated pothos has a similar kind of contrast thanks to its mottled green and white leaf pattern.
I want a Playstation 5 … but I don’t want to pay $800 on StockX.
This is a tough one. Between the semiconductor shortage that’s slowing down production of pretty much everything electronic and the high demand for PS5 consoles, it’s not going to be easy to find one that isn’t from a reseller. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though. Your best bet is to sign up for availability notifications on a site like Stock Informer or NowInStock, or to follow people like TechRadar editor-in-chief Matt Swider on Twitter; his restock alerts have helped a reported 100,000 people find Xbox Series X consoles or PS5s. That way you’ll be among the first to find out when retailers restock. Also, it helps to have your information pre-saved in major sites like Best Buy and Walmart. While other potential buyers are filling out their billing address, you’ll be completing your purchase.
If you just want to scratch your gaming itch without the stress, consider a Nintendo Switch. The Switch was frequently sold out at the start of the pandemic (remember when it seemed like everyone you knew was playing Animal Crossing?), but now supply has caught up to the demand.
It’s 100 degrees out and I’m still working from home. Where are the good air conditioners actually available?
NowInStock founder Justin Vavrick says he’s noticed a unique demand for air conditioners as people spend more time at home. Fortunately, we’ve seen some popular, expert-recommended models newly available at major appliance stores like P.C. Richards. Sylwia Dudek-Gorski, operations manager at the air conditioner service Figlia & Sons, recommended this model to us, calling Friedrich “the king of air conditioners.” It is available on Amazon, but only from third-party sellers, so you’re likely better off buying from an established store in case you run into any issue and need a refund, replacement, or troubleshooting help.
Royal Canin, my big (and old) dog’s favorite wet food, is OOS!
Shortages in aluminum are to blame for some out-of-stock canned dog and cat foods, but it’s not impacting every brand to the same extent. Veterinarians we’ve talked to also love Hill’s Science Diet, which offers a similar recipe to your pet’s go-to. This one, made for senior dogs, is high in protein, easy to digest, and helps support bone and joint health.
What’s the best, not-on-backorder alternative to a Sub-Zero?
Sub-Zero fridges are some of the most coveted out there, and, no surprise, they currently have the longest lead time, according to a sales associate at New York-based Royal Green Appliance Center. While it depends on the model, you’re likely going to have to wait until the end of November for your Sub-Zero. That’s because every retailer sold out of its stock six months ago, and now everyone’s going straight to the manufacturer. Your next best bet is a refrigerator from GE-owned Monogram, another made-in-America company that produces sealed-system fridges with two evaporators and two compressors (like the Sub-Zero), which the sales associate said would be available a little bit sooner — in September. We happened to see one on the Royal Green website that’s available for delivery in just a few days.