Coronavirus Chronicles: Unexpected Shortages of Sudden Needs


It’s not just about toilet paper and hand sanitizer. The house arrest we are all under has given rise to strange patterns of demand for products that the suppliers of those products are just not set up to meet. In an era of global supply chains, lean manufacturing, stringent inventory controls and just-in-time delivery, there is little in the way of surplus product to meet sudden demand.

Three recent experiences:

  • Yeast. Baking bread is the perfect activity when stuck at home. Lovely smells, the tactile joy of kneading dough and shaping loaves, the morally satisfying sense of returning to simpler times, the parent-child bonding. Plus, it soaks up a lot of time and tastes good. But it takes one crucial ingredient: yeast. The small but normally adequate yeast shelf in the local supermarkets are empty. My younger daughter returned from two stores this morning deeply disappointed. The popular brands are sold out on Amazon. Custodians of the alternative, sourdough starter, are growing their blobs as fast as they can to keep the neighbors supplied.
  • Hair clippers. I have been blessed with (ahem) a very nice head of hair. But unless it gets some semi-regular attention, it ends up looking like an abandoned topiary. I am overdue for a haircut, and it will be a long time before the hair salons open and even longer before I will want to sit in close proximity to a stylist. So, I figured I’d let my daughters take a shot at taming the beast. But just try to buy a solid looking buzz clipper. Sold-out, sold-out, sold-out. Now I did find one for way too much money, and it won’t arrive for a while. I will be cautious about Zoom meetings.
  • Computer monitors. My older daughter wisely abandoned New York City. Her entire agency is working from home, and she figured that our house would be a much nicer place for confinement than her crowded Brooklyn apartment. She brought her company laptop, but soon missed the large monitor on her desk, just like everyone else in her position. So, I set out to find a monitor. Nothing at Costco, nothing at Office Depot, and I got the last monitor in the Bellevue Best Buy store. Monitors are available online, but you will have to let you eyes go buggy for a week or two.

More shortages will emerge as we discover new ways to keep from going batty. What will be next? Sidewalk chalk? Yahtzee scorepads? Cookie cutters? Sushi wraps? I was able to trade my sister some baked goods for several large jigsaw puzzles (she swears all the pieces are in the boxes). Puzzle shortages are certain to emerge, and it won’t be pretty.

Michael Luis
Michael Luis
Michael Luis is a public policy consultant who has been wrestling with housing, growth and economic development issues around Washington State for over 30 years. He is author of several books on local history and served as mayor of Medina.


  1. Farhad Manjoo of the NYT has told us how to make our own face-masks. If only he could tell us where to buy ¼” elastic tape to keep them on with. . . .


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