First it was toilet paper
This has been a year of one frustration after another. A big one for me, self-isolating since March and dependent on delivered groceries, is not being able to get a specific product. Like everyone else, I struggled through toilet paper and paper towel shortages in the spring, but those issues eventually resolved (and I have a bathtub full of paper products to show for it). Since then it’s been hit or miss on groceries in particular. A few weeks ago I couldn’t find the particular frozen pizzas I wanted. And for several weeks I couldn’t find my favorite headache tablet (neither brand name nor generic). Then it was my favorite sugar-free sports drink. And currently it’s the little 7-oz microwaveable chili cups. No big deal, but annoying and puzzling.
A local news story blamed some shortages on the public’s realization that stocking up their freezers is a good way to cut down on the number of trips to the grocery store. Duh. But yes, this week I discovered that a lot of my favorite frozen foods were also unavailable.
However, that story barely scratched the surface. Yesterday I came across “Why Everything Is Sold Out,” subtitled “The Pandemic Broke Online Shopping,” a long read from The Atlantic. Groceries are only the latest addition to my years-long addiction to online shopping and I found the story eye-opening. It seems my missing chili is or could be the result of so much more than just a neighbor who got there first. (On some level I knew that, but just hadn’t thought it through.)
A lot of the problems started when China abruptly shut down its manufacturing/exports in January to stop the spread of Covid. The US is heavily dependent on imported parts, ingredients, and products. Among the possible snags en route to me: shortage of the product’s ingredients/parts; shortage of product containers (cans, cartons, etc.); delays in moving all these things from one place to another (to the factory, to the store, etc.); messed up shipping schedules; shortage of shipping containers (like all those Amazon boxes that keep multiplying in my living room); reluctance to stock what might not be sold. It’s a long and intricate process, with innumerable opportunities for delay.
I get it. I do. But come on people, all I want is a few cans of chili …