Shopping for a dishwasher isn’t what it used to be.
Who knew that trying to find such a banal appliance would remind you of what it felt like to find toilet paper in April? Or dry yeast in April. Or a bicycle in May. You might be left wondering: When did dishwashers become the next hot item?
That’s what Sonya Racine began to think after she started shopping for one in early August. She had just bought a 2,000-square-foot house in LaSalle, Illinois, and the dishwasher in the small, 1920s kitchen was broken. So she decided to buy an 18-inch Bosch in stainless steel — a seemingly reasonable purchase. The narrow model “is pretty common,” said Racine, a retired flight attendant. “A lot of my friends have them in Chicago.”
But when she went to a local appliance store, she was told they had none, and they had no idea when they would get any. They wouldn’t even take her order. Home Depot was back-ordered until November. She had no luck at Lowe’s or Best Buy, either.
“Even the white ones were out of stock,” she said. In August, she found one at a local New Jersey chain that could ship in October. But the machine arrived damaged and had to be sent back. By then, that November Home Depot option didn’t look so bad, so she ordered one and actually got it at the end of the month.
Racine could handle the wait — she could live without a dishwasher for a few months — but the scale of the delays and lack of inventory concerned her. “My mom grew up in Germany during World War II and some days her whole meal would be a potato. In perspective, I have everything I need,” she said. “But this is a worrisome sign.”
Dishwashers are just the start. Homeowners are having difficulty finding sofas, chairs, refrigerators, wood, insulation and furnaces to heat their homes. Interior designers say they’ve faced shortages of everything from wallpaper to the samples of materials they show clients. Pamela Eberhard, an interior designer in Beacon, New York, described “delays like I’ve never seen,” including a $1,300 gray tufted sofa from Urban Outfitters that was back-ordered until November 2021.
“It’s impossible to get anything,” said Eberhard, who owns North Nine Designs. “I can’t get a sofa, can’t get dining room chairs, can’t get dining room tables. Everything is out of stock, everything is backed up.”
The pandemic has upended the global supply chain, with problems plaguing it at nearly every turn and affecting the availability of a spectrum of goods from laptops to beer and Clorox wipes.
Back in March, many companies, worried that customers wouldn’t be shopping, halted orders and set off a ripple effect. Factories shut down or slowed production. Materials, like fillings and fabrics for sofas, dried up, which made it a lot harder to make a sofa.
Goods coming from China that used to arrive in three to four weeks now take three months, said Per Hong, a senior partner specializing in global supply chains at Kearney, a global management consultancy. Once they do arrive, they often face more delays at warehouses or getting onto trucks for delivery.
Consumer behavior has also been wildly unpredictable during months of quarantine, with homebound Americans making unexpected runs on items like heating lamps, desks and blowup pools. Basic materials like aluminum are in short supply as people buy more canned soda and beer to drink at home rather than ordering from fountains at bars and restaurants.
“We’re seeing the fallout of this pandemic that is impacting every single level of that supply chain end to end,” Hong said. “And we’re seeing it all start to come together at once.”
Another piece of the puzzle: It turns out that homebound Americans like to sink their money into their homes. Home-furnishing stores, including big ones like Pottery Barn, West Elm and Wayfair, saw online sales surge by 66% year over year through November, according to 1010data, which analyzes consumer habits.
But it’s hard to decorate if you can’t actually get the stuff you ordered. Facebook groups, including one for fans of Pottery Barn, Serena and Lily, and Ballard Design, commiserate about monthslong waits for accent chairs and drapery, hemming over whether it’s better to hold out for the item or cancel the order.
The delays can seem random and arbitrary — some items are readily available, some spontaneously arrive weeks ahead of schedule, and others see their delivery dates delayed indefinitely. It can all feel like a spin of the roulette wheel.
Sarah and Adam Nichols are still waiting on a sofa and love seat that they ordered in September to furnish their new home, a five-bedroom Victorian near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The most recent estimated arrival: sometime in January. Sarah Nichols, who works for an office supply company, puts the odds of that happening at 60%.
“The lady that helped us that day in the store and took our order was pretty much like, ‘I know this is pretty much going to stink, you want your furniture now and this is all I can offer,’ ” Nichols said.
Until the furniture arrives, the couple are sitting on a rocking chair and a couple of folding chairs in the living room. Even secondhand items have been hard to come by, like chairs for their dining room table. “I could probably get them used; that’s OK because I do crafts and could fix them up,” she said. “But every time something would come up, they’d be gone within the hour.”
She finally found a set of chairs at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore and snatched them up. “You almost had to impulse buy,” she said.
These delays could be with us for a while. The pandemic is worsening, even as vaccines trickle out. And global trade is a complicated beast, plagued by breakdowns without quick fixes. “It’s going to be months still, if not years, before we get to a level of normalcy in the way that we can satisfy these needs,” Hong said.