Dog food, bicycles and toilet paper: What Northlanders have bought during the pandemic
“The hysteria. I’ve never seen anything like it for freezers.” — Frank Mertz
While most stores were closed during quarantine, consumers still had their fair share of buying.
Around the country, kombucha, spiral hams and hair dye saw a spike , according to Business Insider. Forbes reported an increase in made-for-adult boredom busters such as 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles, sidewalk chalk, as well as air cookers, bread makers and pizza ovens.
We bought more books, but we spent less on jewelry and clothes.
The News Tribune checked in with local businesses to see what Northlanders were buying during the shutdown, then and now.
Duluth’s Continental Ski and Bike Shop opened May 6 after being closed for about six weeks.
What they had in stock for bicycles should have seen them through mid-June, but within their first two weeks, they were out of bikes under $500.
A week or two later, they have no bikes available for less than $1,000.
“With everything that happened, I guess people decided they wanted to get out and ride,” said buyer Jon Haaversen.
Maybe it was the $1,200 stimulus check. Maybe it was the Northland’s miles upon miles of bike trails. Maybe people needed a social-distancing form of transportation. Whatever it was, he said, people are willing to spend more depending on how desperate they are.
And that’s a trend that extends past Duluth.
There are shortages across the globe. Manufacturers have been unable to keep up, and they, too, had to shut down during quarantine, Haaversen said.
Normally, the store would carry 100-200 bikes for less than $1,000. But, as the store's buyer, he said, he’s just trying to get what he can, when he can. He noted that he has seen an uptick in bicycle service appointments, which is typical for this time of year.
A freezer is, and has been, hard to come by.
“The hysteria. I’ve never seen anything like it for freezers,” said Frank Mertz, co-owner of Johnson Mertz appliance center in Duluth.
When Mertz spoke to the News Tribune recently, he had just stocked 35 chest freezers. He said 20 of them were already sold, and the other 15 would be gone in one day.
He said demand has been steady for the past couple months. They sold every one they had in the first week of the sheltering-in-place order.
Freezers were back-ordered; people were calling from Chicago trying to buy. Demand was so high that manufacturers were cleaned out, he said.
Appliances in general have been in high demand — washers, dryers, refrigerators. Dishwashers are also on back order.
“People didn’t travel; they didn’t go to the bar; they didn’t go to the Cities for their kids’ sporting events. They were home, and many could say, ‘Let’s fix the washer,’ which put a lot of pressure on the appliance industry," Mertz said.
The store has been going hard for the past couple months, and he didn’t see that letting up soon. “We'll see what it's like in two weeks, if it goes back to more normal once people start getting out.”
Yeast, cleaning supplies, TP
Pre-pandemic, hot-ticket items at Mount Royal Market were eggs, bread and milk, said Lynne Carlson, head cashier. During the shutdown, Carlson saw a bump in sales of vitamin C, thermometers, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol and disposable gloves.
“Bread yeast, of course,” she said, along with frozen veggies, corn, beans and powdered milk.
(She, too, was in the market for a chest freezer, “but everyone else had the same idea,” she said.)
Strong sellers pre-pandemic went into higher demand, said Mike Johnson, assistant store manager at Super One in West Duluth. Hard-to-stock items according to Johnson are bags of rice, boxes of Ramen, toilet paper, canned soup and veggies, spaghetti noodles, Kraft dressing and sports drinks. But it’s all about demand.
When a customer comes in looking for an item, it’s not a question of if the store is ordering it, it’s, "Do the wholesalers have it available?" Johnson said.
Johnson and Carlson acknowledged toilet paper was a huge seller . Johnson attributes a recent price increase to a strained supply. It used to be, when there is an excess amount of the product, the store could tap into discounts.
“Now that the world is competing for toilet paper, those deals aren’t out there for us,” Johnson said.
During the shutdown, A Place for Fido remained open via curbside pickup and online orders. There was the occasional leash, gift certificate or a birthday cookie, but dog food was the No. 1 item, said owner Jamie Parent.
Dog food sales saw a bump of 54%, cat food sales trailed close behind at 52%, and online retailer Chewy aimed to hire 6,000 people in late March to keep up with demand, according to CNN .
Before COVID-19 at A Place for Fido, big purchases were seasonal: boots and coats during winter, life jackets and hands-free leashes during summer. And now that the store is open, Parent has seen an increase in single-serve treats, impulse purchases and toys.
Home and garden supplies
It was a busier-than-normal March and April at Denny's Ace Hardware .
“With a lot of people being out of work, they had an opportunity to get a lot done that they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said sales clerk Matt Neas.
Paint, garden supplies and grills have been the hot-ticket items, and the store has had trouble keeping wheelbarrows stocked, along with empty spray bottles and cleaning supplies.
The warehouse is out of potting mix, topsoil, mulch, and they usually don’t run out of them completely, he added.
Seeds were a hot item in the Northland , a shift that echoed across the globe during the shutdown. In mid-March, seed demand spiked 30% in Russia, and a Maine seed retailer saw a 270% bump in online orders, according to Reuters .
Asked if Neas had issues finding products himself: “Cleaning supplies,” he said.
If there's a positive side to the tumult, Parent said, the pandemic helped some customers commit to buying local because they realized the value of touching items in the store before purchasing.