ASHEVILLE – From guns and gluten-free foods to freezers and bear-proof canisters, the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired panic buying of a wide and sometimes strange variety.
Everybody knows toilet paper and paper towels went MIA early on, and reports about lumber shortages and coins surfaced in recent weeks.
But as the pandemic wore on, Americans furiously upgraded their homes and gardens, started exercising more at home or outdoors and became even more obsessed with home security, causing a major spike in gun and ammunition sales, as well as in bikes, tents, gardening supplies and more.
Here’s a look at items running short that may surprise you:
Between the pandemic and social unrest of 2020, gun and ammunition sales have skyrocketed, depleting supplies. (Photo: Paul L. Newby II / PnewbyII@Citizen-Times.com, Asheville Citizen-Times)
Guns and ammo
At Leicester Pawn & Gun, like at a lot of gun shops, the big rush came when the pandemic hit back in March and people got really concerned about protecting their homes, according to Manager Russell Whitmire. As businesses closed and some supplies ran short — and millions of Americans lost jobs — people got nervous about a societal breakdown.
“Then right after that we had the George Floyd death and the demonstrating and rioting that took place, and the ‘Defund the police’ stuff,” Whitmire said, referring to Floyd’s May 25 killing at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. “People were wanting something for home defense.”
Shotguns started flying off the shelves first, but the run quickly followed on handguns and rifles, including AR-15 semi-automatic rifles.
While they’re able to get some firearms in stock, supplies are way down, as manufacturers scramble to keep up with orders. Vendors tell Whitmire short supplies on guns may last for a few months, as manufacturers just can’t keep up with demand and some plants have been hit by COVID cases or reduced workforce rules.
Guns are fairly useless without ammunition, and that’s the big sticking point now
“It’s extremely hard to come by,” Whitmire said, adding he’s probably been able to get just one case of 9mm ammo from his regular vendor since March. “Basically, we have to get online and find it where we can. Getting it wholesale is really hard.”
The sales surge outpaced others that came after other landmark events, including Barack Obama’s election in 2008, Whitmire said.
Seeds, starts and canning jars
Kristin Weeks, managing partner and co-owner of Asheville’s Fifth Season Gardening Co. location, said the start of the pandemic launched customers into a garden supply buying frenzy.
“If you look at the beginning of spring, food security was a real thing,” she said.
Kristin Weeks, managing partner of Fifth Season Gardening, packages us the materials needed to start home-brewing kombucha at the East Asheville store on July 12, 2019. (Photo: ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)
Unsure of how the food supply would be impacted by COVID-19, customers nationwide hurriedly put up gardens, leading to wide scale seed shortages.
Fortunately, Weeks said, she had stocked her store with enough garden supplies in the fall to get through the season — and also enjoy a 25% sales bump from January to July over the same time last year.
Weeks sold triple the amount of vegetable starts as usual, and resorted to buying from local nurseries after her usual supplier ran dry.
Customers were snapping up everything green and growing, offering full price for premature veggie starts the store usually grows out for weeks before putting them up for sale.
“It was cool to see so many people gardening, but there was a panic to it as well that was palpable,” Weeks said.
That rush has largely subsided to a steady hum. But Weeks still sees shortages of supplies for a variety of odd reasons.
For example, New Zealand’s exports mostly travel via commercial aircraft, so a decline in flights means fewer orchid supplies like sphagnum moss.
Weeks has also has seen shortages on sourdough starter for her DIY shelves. “Everyone’s baking,” she explained.
eville chefs rush in to help
People are also canning, and Ball jars, the gold standard for preserving, are also in short supply. “It’s harvest time, and there’s no freaking Ball jars anywhere,” Weeks said.
Bikes, kayaks and ‘anything bear’ — outdoor gear flying off shelves
On a positive note, the pandemic has us venturing outside more and getting more exercise. On a not-so-positive note, bike racks at Walmarts and Targets are often bare or close to it, and even specialty shops are having trouble keeping bikes stocked.
“The big thing with this is it hit so abruptly — it was a very quick spike in sales,” said Sam White, general manager at Liberty Bikes in South Asheville.
Racks meant to hold bicycles for sale sit empty at Liberty Bicycles on Aug. 19, 2020. Bicycles have been in short supply all over due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Angeli Wright, ANGELI WRIGHT/ASHEVILLE CITIZEN TIMES)
Initially in March, with so many people out of work and businesses shuttered, business dipped. Then it went bananas, as folks figured out bike riding offered a perfect outlet, being outdoors and naturally distanced from others most of the time.
“Then very quickly the boom began,” White said. “Entry-level bikes and kids bikes were the first things to take off. They stripped away the kids’ bike inventory very quickly.”
Pressure on adult mountain and road bikes quickly followed. So many sales took place, vendors and manufacturers were caught flat-footed.
“When vendors run out, they’re going on (sales) projections of what happened last year,” White said. “So when the inventory went away, the lead time to get a replacement bike was 150 days. All of the sudden warehouses were empty of bikes in late May.”
While Liberty is still getting inventory in, the sales crush affected bikes across all levels and types, and those entry-level and kids’ bikes are still tough to find.
“We’re seeing a lot of new people on bikes — we call it ‘more butts on bikes,'” White said. “More people are riding and enjoying the outdoors.”
At REI, the outdoor gear business in Biltmore Park, Store Manager Bree Miller said bikes got depleted quickly, but that’s also spread to other outdoor gear.
“Basically, we’re out of every boat on the sales floor right now,” Miller said, referring to kayaks. “For the manufacturers, sometimes even finding the materials to make additional product is proving to be a challenge.”
Tents flew off the shelves and are hard to find, as are day packs and child-carrying backpacks, she said.
In an odd twist, bears have certainly not taken the pandemic off. Hikers and campers looking for bear-proof gear or spray may be out of luck.
“Bear safety is another place – we just don’t have the amount of product we can usually go through,” Miller said Aug. 20. “And bear canisters that you can set up away from your campsite, they’re hard to get. We just got a case of them on the truck today, but it’s only one case. Normally, we’d get six. It’s also bear spray. Really, anything bear right now is hard to come by.”
While the supply issues are “starting to come around,” Miller said shortage likely will last “at least probably into October, November and probably into 2021, to be honest.”
At Liberty Bikes, White agrees.
“Inventory is going to be tight through the winter,” White said. “We’ve got a lot of bikes on back order. A lot of customers are putting deposits on bikes that are coming, but they know it’s going to be two, three months before they come in. We’ve got some customers putting deposits on bikes for February and March.”
Pasta and cleaning supplies
Ingles CFO Ron Freeman confirmed what we already know: the stock for certain cleaning supplies and paper products has been shaky since the start of the pandemic.
Who could have foreseen the biggest supply problem to plague pandemic buyers would involve Clorox wipes and toilet paper?
But that’s not the only thing the store sees customers stocking up on. “Pasta has also been in demand, perhaps because it is versatile and easy to prepare,” Freeman said.
Echoing Weeks, Freeman said jars are also hot right now. “We have seen a lot of demand for canning supplies and food storage items, indicating a lot of people of growing gardens,” he said.
But if customers find empty stores shelves, there are often far more complex issues at hand beyond panic buying, he added.
“Some shortages are not necessarily demand driven, but occur due to production shortages further back in the supply chain,” Freeman said.
Pet clippers and combs
Pandemic pets are a real thing, with shelters reporting a surge in demand for adoptable pets during COVID-19. Perhaps that’s why people are now finding some of the supplies they need for their new pets in short supply.
Professional groomer Rachel Mongno, owner of Barking Mountain Pet Styles, said many of her colleagues have reported shortages in basic grooming equipment, including dog clippers, guide comb sets and core blades.
“The general consensus I’ve seen among groomers on social media is that a surplus of owners purchased the basic tools needed for grooming their pets at home during the shutdown,” she said.
Also, many groomers purchase equipment at industry trade shows, many of which are cancelled for the year, Mongno said.
“So, they’re also ordering tools, product and equipment online that they were originally planning to purchase in person,” she said.
That, in theory, could put pressure on the supply for regular consumers as well.
Appliances of all kinds
At Haywood Appliance in South Asheville, it started with stand-alone freezers.
“In the middle of March, they were out of stock and back-ordered, and we really haven’t gotten any in since then,” said Stephan Henderson, a sales associate at Haywood Appliance, which has been in business since 1971. “Most of the major brands even stopped taking orders.”
Henderson, who’s worked for the large home improvement chains, too, said the shortage quickly spread out to refrigerators and other appliances. Haywood buys directly from big manufacturers such as Whirlpool and LG, and he says it looks like production and delivery of many appliances will lag into next year.
Henderson stressed they have inventory onhand, but the “lead time” on resupplying is stretching out now to two months or even longer. One major brand said they weren’t even taking new orders until Jan. 1, Henderson said.
A manager at a local Lowe’s Home Improvement store said they were seeing similar issues with appliances.
At Haywood Appliance, they sell to the general public and supply homebuilders. A boom in local home and apartment construction is fueling demand, as appliances have to be in place to secure an occupancy permit.
But homeowners working from home or just generally spending more time there are also upgrading kitchens and utility rooms.
“I think one of the biggest issues is in the next two or three months, those are big sales months, and Black Friday is one of the biggest sales days of the year,” Henderson said. “So, I don’t see a slowdown in the demand. I think we’re going to have more supply chain issues before it gets better.”
Dumbbells and roller blades
Brian Vandever, assistant manager at Play It Again Sports on Tunnel Road, said more people than you might expect have spent the pandemic working on form.
That’s translated to shortages on dumbbells from 5-35 pounds and a run on weight benches and accessories.
A lone dumbbell awaits a buyer at a Columbus-area Target store. Retailers are having trouble stocking exercise equipment, disinfecting wipes and sprays, paper towels, bikes and other items during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Samantha Raudins/The Columbus Dispatch)
He’s seen dumbbell deliveries of 13,000 pounds get snapped up in two days.
“When the gyms closed, there were a lot of people who traded their addictions for workouts,” he said. “They bettered their lives, really. They needed to work out.”
More than 65% of U.S. fitness equipment is made in foundries in China, which have seen both production and shipping disrupted by COVID. Meanwhile, two main domestic manufacturers of weights are hard-pressed to keep up with demand.
Warehouses are also backed up, with all equipment, including spin bikes and treadmills, arriving at a crawl.
More: ‘Treading water’: Music venues, bar owners hemorrhage money as shutdowns persist
More: Some gyms reopen in Asheville area, pointing to state COVID guidance loophole
But Vandever said the rush on weights is a good thing. Lifting, he said, “gives you self confidence and levels of achievement you never otherwise get.”
“It saves lives, realistically,” he added.
The 32-year-old, a self-professed adrenaline junkie, has been hitting the skate park with his son throughout the pandemic.
He sees signs that others are moving outside as well. Supplies for outdoor games, including horseshoes, badminton and disk golf, have been hard to keep in stock.
Roller blades and skates also seem to be back in style.
“(The pandemic) has forced people do things I think they should be doing anyway,” he said. “Like focus on the better things in life.”
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