Where to Buy Items With COVID-Related Supply-Chain Issues16 min read
Illustration: by Kate Dehler
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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.
Illustration: by Kate Dehler
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.
Illustration: by Kate Dehler
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.”
Illustration: by Kate Dehler
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.
Illustration: by Kate Dehler
Lastly: If there are any additional products that you’ve had trouble finding, please email us at [email protected] and let us know. We’ll do our best to find an alternative for you and possibly include it in a future update.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you can’t find a standard-size mini-fridge in your price range, consider going extra mini. These tiny fridges — which have become popular over recent years for keeping skin-care products cold — work for food and drinks too. This tiny under-$50 fridge will fit exactly six cans, likely just what you’re looking for as a college student.
Home-improvement-project spikes aren’t just increasing demand for things like lumber and flooring. With more people building pools, it’s also getting harder to find the chlorine used to sanitize them. The problem was amplified last August when a fire burned down a plant in Louisiana owned by BioLab, the country’s largest manufacturer of pool chemicals. According to Stewart Vernon, COO and co-founder of the pool service company America’s Swimming Pool Co., the best alternative is a salt chlorinator, which runs salt through an electrolytic cell to convert it into chlorine. By generating your own chlorine, you won’t have to continually buy more, saving money in the long run. Stuart Baker, vice-president of business development at Hayward, a leading pool equipment manufacturer, adds that because the chlorine generated by a salt system is free of byproducts found in chlorine tabs, it feels softer on the skin and doesn’t irritate the eyes like heavily chlorinated water. In fact, Baker says the majority of new home pools are installed with salt systems due to their multiple advantages.
If you don’t want to invest in a salt system or are looking for a shorter-term solution, Vernon suggests “shocking” your pool with extra-strength chlorine. The Bio-Lab fire decimated the supply of stabilized chlorine, which Stewart says is the type that’s gradually released into a pool to keep it clean, but he says you can still find “shock chlorine,” a more concentrated form of the chemical that you dump into your pool every few days for a rapid disinfecting dose. Because it’s so strong, though, you’ll have to wait until chlorine and pH levels in your pool return to normal before it’s safe to swim after shocking (which can take up to 24 hours).
COVID did indeed affect production of vinyl-pressing plants, and Taylor Swift is indeed selling so many vinyls, specifically, that she’s breaking sales records, but if you’re tired of checking availability on her website and at Target, Walmart, etc., you could go another vinyl route altogether, according to Vulture’s Wolfgang Ruth. His advice: “If you’re craving the similar hints of pop and edging country of Taylor Swift’s Evermore — mixed with the soft slamming of incredible lyrics, of course — get Girl in Red’s debut album, If I Could Make It Go Quiet. In an interview with Vulture, Girl in Red even stated how much Swift has already influenced her career. From ‘Midnight Love’ to ‘I’ll Call You Mine,’ the 22-year-old singer makes a sonically matching case that echoes the likes of not only Swift, but other icons, like Beabadoobee and the Cranberries.”
Bikes were another early-pandemic item that folks could not get their hands on, and the problem has persisted. But REI does have some in-stock bikes that are perfect for city riding. When we wrote about the best commuter bikes, Maggie Slepian, the co-founder of Backpacking Routes, told us, “What’s awesome about the Co-op Cycles line is that it has really nice components — the same as you’d find on Specialized bikes — but they’re REI branded and therefore more affordable.” If REI doesn’t have your desired size, Public Bikes has some in-stock and not-too-expensive bikes worth exploring, too.
Yes, the kid bikes in shortest supply are those for the 7-to-11-year-old range–that is, the 24-inch bike is generally the largest size designed for kids. (This Twitter user said his local bike shop was out of 24-inch bikes for more than a year.) We did find a suitable bike from Specialized that was just released, and it’s adjustable so that it’s proportional to your child — and designed to handle growth spurts, too.
Fitness pros rave about Rogue dumbbells, but lots of popular sizes are still sold out. Instead of cobbling together pairs from a few different brands, you can get that professional-gym look with a full set of dumbbells from Goldens’ Cast Iron. We uncovered these dumbbells from an unlikely source — Goldens’ is best known for its Kamado grills — early in the pandemic, when all home fitness equipment was basically impossible to find. Pairs of weights from five to 50 pounds are all in stock and ship within two weeks.
Early in the pandemic, you’d have to wait about three months for a Peloton bike to ship. Now, you can get the basic bike in under two weeks and for under $2,000. (Peloton dropped the price after it introduced the Bike+.) If you really want to save money, this under-$400 folding treadmill has over 6,000 positive reviews on Amazon. Since it folds up, it’s also ideal for small spaces — like the “gym” in your guest bedroom.
Golf saw a huge uptick in interest during quarantine, as it’s the perfect outdoor sport — with social distancing built in. Unfortunately, early on in the pandemic, golf brands, like many companies, had to shut down their factories. Now, they’re all playing catch-up, and the shortage of golf equipment appears to be a pure supply-and-demand issue, as this Golf.com article explains. Material shortages of rubber, steel, and graphite are also to blame. While many clubs on Amazon are backordered or unavailable at the moment, if you’re a beginner who doesn’t need anything fancy and would prefer to buy a complete set rather than putting one together piecemeal, here’s an entry-level bag from Top Flite; it’s well-reviewed and ready for immediate shipping.
Hardwood may be the classic choice when you’re putting in flooring, but laminate wood is cheap, abundantly available, and durable. (And while it’s not as high-end or attractive as hardwood, at least you won’t have to worry about scratches or needing to refinish a laminate floor.) Get in on the rustic gray flooring trend for just a dollar a square foot.
After so many people had to put their plans on hold during quarantine, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen a big uptick in weddings this year. But that also means a lot of men are looking for new suits at the same time — the Milano suit from Brooks Brothers has been so popular that the brand is all out of the suit’s black regular-fit pants in sizes over 32 inches. But one brand that seems to be well stocked with a range of sizes is Bonobos, and it has a few very similar-looking suits, including this one made from a blend of the finest Italian wool and cashmere. If you’re okay with a small amount of stretch in the fabric, the brand has a more affordable alternative, too.
If you just want the pants, these Ludlow classic-fit suit pants should also do the trick.
Even Room & Board, a company that produces the bulk of its furniture in the U.S. and therefore isn’t tied to unpredictable international-supply-chain issues, can’t keep up with the furniture demands of the moment. (According to Andy Cox, VP of merchandising at online interior-design service Havenly, the backlog of furniture and décor orders is up 251 percent versus this time last year.) While it’s noble to want to support American-made furniture, we found a near-dupe of the Metro at Article, which works with responsible manufacturers in Asia. The Sitka sofa — available in four neutral colorways — has similar lines to the Metro, and can get to you in five weeks rather than in a few months.
In case you skipped over our first dozen warnings, yes, popular home items are loaded with wait times right now, and that includes major lighting pieces and even small desk lamps like this one, which we’ve previously written about and that we’ve now seen go missing. (Anthropologie, for its part, confirms that the Cloud chandelier is on backorder due to significant delays in the supply chain.) If you like the whimsy of the Cloud chandelier, we suggest this frosted-globe configuration that appears to be immediately available at Aurorae. We love that you can choose between the number of baubles you want to include, and because they’re suspended at different lengths, you can achieve the airy, organic nature of the Anthropologie set for a little less money.
Patio-furniture selections are indeed slim at showrooms everywhere, but certain reasonably priced, apartment-friendly options still do exist. You can actually find a decent amount of wicker-style patio and bistro sets at places like Amazon, or, if you’re looking for something more Ikea-like, head to West Elm, which carries a table that’s a slender 30 inches wide. And while you will have to cough up more than double the cost of the Ikea set, this one is made from solid mahogany and doesn’t require self-assembly using a tiny Allen wrench (which in itself is worth a lot). Alternatively, if you don’t mind the mismatched look, you could buy the table on its own and get less-expensive chairs from somewhere else, like, yes, Ikea (whose individual outdoor items are more readily available than its complete sets right now); the Hogsten is a versatile choice that comes in a low-back or high-back style.
Yes. We heard from Coyote Amrich of sex-toy shop Babeland that the chip shortage impacting smartphones and cars could also get in the way of you buying a new vibrator — especially if it has Bluetooth technology. If you’re looking to purchase a specific vibrator, like the incredibly popular Chorus from We-Vibe, you should probably buy it now.
In addition to chip shortages and shipping problems, the popularity of cryptocurrency, especially the newly introduced bitcoin rival chia, has boosted demand for certain large-capacity external hard drives and solid state drives (SSDs). Where bitcoin requires massive amounts of electricity to mine, chia coin requires SSDs to generate randomized numbers and hard drives to store them. Finding a hard drive over 8TB might just take a lot of commitment and a quick refresh finger (something crypto enthusiasts have in spades). We found this one available from Seagate, for now, but it might not be around for long.
Experts say there are some good, lesser-known brands out there to consider, so you may be able to score a better deal if you look past the Samsungs and Sonys. One such brand is TCL, which comes recommended by Brian Westover, a Tom’s Guide editor who covers the television industry. He tells us, “as a manufacturer, they own the whole vertical — from the components to their design — so their quality control is very good, which is something you’d otherwise give up with budget brands.” TCL offers a number of TVs with the latest technology, including 4K resolution and Roku integration, in the $600-and-under range.
In the last few months, Starbucks stores nationwide have been running low on popular items from matcha to breakfast sandwiches. Oat milk has been in especially high demand since the chain added the dairy alternative earlier this year. If your local store is having trouble keeping it in stock, consider these single-serving containers of Oatly (the same brand Starbucks stocks). Each one is small enough to toss in your bag and doesn’t need to be refrigerated while unopened, so if your store does have oat milk in stock, you can just save it for next time.
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