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6 Items That Might Improve Your Life but Are Still Hard to Find

COVID-19 shortages affect everything from sewing machines to patio heaters

A man on a city street riding a bike

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People are spending more time focusing on home projects and hobbies. They're avoiding the gym and exercising at home. Entertaining often means sitting outside with friends to avoid coronavirus exposure.

Many items that would enhance these activities remain difficult to find or are unusually expensive as retailers boost prices on items remaining in stock. Some have been scarce since COVID-19 hit in the spring and still haven't become more readily available. Others, like patio heaters, are facing seasonal shortages as people try to extend their ability to socialize outside in cooler weather.

Experts predict the pandemic will continue to impact global commerce in the future. David Marcotte, an expert in international commerce at Kantar, a market research firm, says he expects to see shortages in web cameras and internet routers, for example, as Americans continue to work from home.

"Current and future demand is a complete mystery to everybody,” says Marcotte. “There's no rhyme or reason to 2020 and that creates an enormous amount of uncertainty."

Here are some things that are still hard to get.

1. Bicycles

A surge in demand for socially distant, outdoor activities has caused massive disruptions in the bicycle industry. April sales for traditional bicycles and cycling accessories grew by 75 percent compared with the same period last year, according to data from the N.P.D. Group, a market research company.

Eric Bjorling, the director of brand marketing and public relations at Trek Bicycle, says the increased demand for bikes began in March, just as bicycle manufacturers were forced to shut down production at factories in Asia.

Bjorling called the increase in local demand and decrease in global supply “a perfect storm” that created months-long back orders in the United States.

Scott Garrity, 50, of Ashburn, Va., is an avid cyclist who has had difficulty finding parts and accessories during the pandemic. When Garrity tried to order a Trek mountain bike for his wife in mid-September, he was told he would not be able to receive the bike until 2021. “I ended up getting her a used mountain bike because we couldn't get the bike we wanted for almost a year,” Garrity says.

He also noted that local bike shops have been running low on stock in recent months. “If you went into a bike shop and you needed grips or a bottle cage, they were saying, ‘We can't get it,'” Garrity says.

Woman making masks using sewing machine

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2. Sewing Machines

Americans wanting to make their own masks have created sewing machine shortages.

George Moore, who runs Moore's Sewing Centers, a chain of six sewing stores in Southern California, says many people began buying new machines and repairing old ones at the beginning of the pandemic. “Factories are working at max capacity with long back orders of machines. Many of our most popular models we are preselling with shipments being sold prior to their arrival,” Moore says.

Experts say the increased demand goes beyond sewing masks. People are turning to sewing as a hobby activity and sign-ups for sewing classes are spiking.

The situation has impacted even the biggest retailers. Walmart, Brother and JoAnn's have each reported significant reductions to their sewing machine inventories.

3. Exercise Equipment

Gym closures caused massive demand for personal exercise equipment beginning in late March. The surge in demand has made it hard to find common gym items, including kettlebells, dumbbells and iron plates, according to Marcotte.

"Anything that's cast iron, there's a huge shortage right now,” says Patrick Regan Sr., vice president of procurement at Life Time, a fitness company with health clubs across the country.

An April study that surveyed consumer interests on the search and reviewing site Yelp found that interest in fitness equipment had risen by 500 percent in the United States since March.

"If you're somebody at home looking for exercise equipment, you're going to continue experiencing an extreme shortage,” says Regan.

Heat lamp outdoors

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4. Patio Heaters & Outdoor Heat Lamps

As the weather cools, restaurants and those who want to continue to entertain outside are driving a surge in demand for patio heaters and heat lamps.

Online furniture retailer Wayfair said searches for patio heaters have increased by more than 70 percent compared to this time in previous years, and Amazon reported a similar increase in outdoor heater sales. reported a 225 percent increase in outdoor furniture sales, including outdoor heat lamps.

Restaurants, in particular are scrambling to add these to their outdoor dining areas in order to extend their use into the colder months, since many are limited on how many patrons they can serve indoors because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Wait times for orders from heat lamp manufacturers have lengthened in recent weeks, and it is unclear when delays will let up.

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5. Pressure Treated Wood

The rising popularity of home improvement projects combined with a boom in housing construction has decreased the availability of pressure treated wood, according to Marcotte. The shortages are even more pronounced as many homeowners focus on remodeling projects such as building decks, fences and garden enclosures, reflecting more time spent at home during the pandemic.

Lumber mills in North America cut production by almost half during the spring in anticipation of a slowdown in home construction, according to Consumer Reports. Home Depot and Lowe's sold out of their yearlong quota by the end of May.

Increased demand has driven up pressure treated wood prices by as much as 30 percent in some parts of the country.

Marcotte said that rising demand for wood may be correlated to increased housing production.

"People can't build houses fast enough at the moment,” Marcotte said. “New home construction can't catch up."

6. Laptops

Laptop orders increased in the spring as many employees began working from home. Supply has yet to catch up, however, in part because of recently imposed tariffs by the Trump administration.

The world's three biggest computer companies — Lenovo, HP and Dell — have announced a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops.

On July 20, the Commerce Department imposed sanctions on 11 Chinese companies it said were implicated in human rights abuses against a Muslim minority population, the Uighurs. The sanctions impacted the manufacturer of multiple models of Lenovo laptops, which the company says added to existing delays.

Many school districts also submitted laptop orders to help accommodate online learning. Most orders, however, have not been filled, prompting concerns that shortages will worsen educational inequities.

"All of the sudden everybody needs a laptop. And you know, it takes a while to gear up manufacturing,” Marcotte says, noting that production involves roughly 200 contractors contributing material.

It is unclear when the laptop backlog will let up, according to Marcotte, who says it will depend on the ability of manufacturers to acquire supplies and return factories to full capacity during the pandemic.

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