Are you selling any small, inflatable backyard pools? Do you have any in stock?
It was an innocent question. One I posed to hardware stores across the region. From what I’d picked up on social media and from fellow parents in recent days, it seemed these “toys” were making a pandemic comeback. Even cooped-up suburbanites were scrounging for old-school summer fun, Philly-style.
A hardware store in Havertown told me they were out of inflatable swimming pools because of a vague warehouse issue related to the coronavirus. Another, in Roxborough, said kiddie pools were unusually hot sellers this year. But he refused to elaborate. He said the store had a new policy of staying mum about inventory issues during the COVID-19 crisis.
Then came Russell Goudy: Man Who Tells It Like It Is.
“We have been selling the kiddie pools since way before things got hot,” the owner of Kilian Hardware told me Thursday, which was funny; you don’t expect puny, plastic-molded pools to be a hot item in Chestnut Hill, where big houses and yards make it one of Philadelphia’s poshest neighborhoods. “Are they washing their dogs in them?”
Wisecrack aside, he quickly changed the subject. And what came out of his mouth was a curveball.
“The way things are going," Goudy said, “we’re not going to have anything on our shelves in a couple of weeks. Everything’s drying up. The supply chain’s been drying up.”
“It’s not just toilet paper; it’s everything," said Goudy, who’d just gotten fewer skids of garden supplies and birdseed than he’d ordered, among other things. “It’s just hitting the fan right now — in the past week, all of a sudden.”
Our governors gave people an inch by allowing hardware stores to remain open while most other businesses were ordered shut in March.
But many of us — at least, those with enough downtime and disposable income despite historic unemployment — apparently took a mile.
House paint. Fire pits. Knee-deep blowup pools, mulch, pavers, and grout. Hardly “life-sustaining” merchandise in the same category of eggs and milk. The demand has been so high that it’s fueling extraordinary sales and profits at hardware stores — and now, apparently, some supplies are turning scarce.
“We’ve sold more firewood these last two months than we had all winter,” said Do It Best Hardware owner Jeff Muth in Wayne.
Imagine all the life-sustaining marshmallows and s’mores consumed since March.
In Paoli, the hottest pandemic items have been paint and garden supplies. Steve Cartozzi has seen it up close at the Hardware Center.
“People are painting their houses,” store owner Cartozzi said. “When did that start? When this thing hit."
And herbs. Don’t even get him started on the herbs.
“Herbs? We’ve sold four times more herbs than this time last spring,” he said.
The contagion that has plunged us into economic chaos has been a boon to hardware stores. It’s made many of us bored enough to actually be constructive at home. You know, like the olden days, when we all lived in villages and had little to do between harvest.
It has to be that the people most able to indulge in this New American Way are those not in taxing, frontline jobs. Perhaps they are on unemployment and with new idle time. Surely, they are not impoverished, or among those of us workers also with young children at home who must be taught in the absence of schools being open.
It’s been great news for hardware store owners, of course.
“There’s winners and losers in everything” is how Muth put it.
But now, it seems, even the winners may be starting to feel a squeeze.
A delivery Thursday to Kilian Hardware brought just a fraction of what Goudy had ordered. He got skids containing 600 items; an additional 800 never made it. He secures merchandise through the Ace Hardware buying cooperative.
That buying cooperative did not seem keen to offer insights when I reached out to them about the supply chain disruption as it had been described to me. Just a day earlier, Ace had reported record first-quarter revenues of $1.43 billion.
“We are not able to make an interview happen at this time” is all spokesperson Andrew Stern said in an email back to me.
Although not supplied by Ace, Muth has begun to feel a supply crunch at his Wayne hardware store, too. Wheelbarrows made in China are harder to come by. He wonders if it’s related to pandemic disruptions with factory production there.
Normally, 20 to 30 items are missing from his weekly deliveries. Now it’s 60 to 80.
But the bright side? Muth perks up just talking about it, even though the hours worked have been exhausting.
People are spending two, three, even four times more than usual per visit. Comparison-shopping is a thing of the past. Masked customers zoom in with long lists and want nothing more than a one-and-done proposition. At first, customer visits fell with the March lockdown, he said. They’re way back up, though.
“I can’t lie,” said the 43-year-old hardware man who grew up at his dad’s shop next to Pica’s in Upper Darby before moving to Wayne. “It’s definitely not a bad thing.”