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Originally published in Castine Patriot, September 10, 2020 and Island Ad-Vantages, September 10, 2020 and The Weekly Packet, September 10, 2020
Shortages persist, from building supplies to Cheez-Its
Pandemic causing high prices, too

by Leslie Landrigan

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many first-time gardeners bought seeds and seedlings at Mainescape in Blue Hill. They bought many, many seeds and seedlings, far more than they needed, said Mainescape’s owner Althea Paine in a telephone interview. “Enough tomatoes to supply the peninsula,” she said. “They’d been cooped up all winter long, and they wanted to fix up their environment.”

That newfound enthusiasm for gardening made seeds scarce. Now that it’s harvest time, vinegar and canning equipment can be hard to find. So can building supplies, landscape materials, cleaning products and certain paper goods.

People are spending more time in their homes because of the pandemic, and they’re spending money to fix up those homes, say local retailers and builders. Combine that with a brisk real estate market and pandemic-related supply chain issues, and you’ve got shortages.

“The supply is down, and the demand is up,” said Fred Perkins, sales manager for Hammond Lumber Co., in a phone interview. “We’re not complaining, it’s been a brisk year. We’re a COVID winner.”

The decline in travel has helped the building trades, Perkins said. “[People] are at home, they’re looking at their castle and they’re deciding to fix it up.”

Now, he said, Hammond Lumber is finding it a challenge to source certain materials: roofing, siding, cedar decking, pressure-treated wood, certain kinds of screws and fasteners.

“Everyone’s inventory is being depleted faster than the manufacturer can recover,” Perkins said.

He said predictions of a bad economy in the spring caused manufacturers to cut back on inventory and payroll. “In March and April, people were rushing to complete jobs before the other shoe dropped. Then the economy just kept going,” he said.

In Castine, business is also brisk for T.K. Sampson General Building Contractor, Inc. Sampson said in a phone interview he’s remodeling a $600,000 cottage in Castine for a San Francisco couple who plan to put another $600,000 into it.

With the price of lumber these days, it may not be hard to spend that much.

“Lumber and lumber products have really skyrocketed,” Sampson said. “Plywood and sheetrock are up 40 to 50 percent, dimensional lumber is up 30 percent.”

All this has happened in just the past few months, he said.

Sampson has a simple answer for what’s going on: “Price gouging,” he said.

No time to be picky

People are pouring money into their lawns and gardens as well as their homes. Paine said it’s been frustrating trying to buy inventory for Mainescape. “You can’t get insecticide, you can’t get fertilizer, you can’t get almost anything related to the outdoors,” she said. Bird seed is almost harder to get now than it was in the spring, she said.

But, Paine said, there’s good news for people who like chrysanthemums: Mainescape is swimming in them.

Larry Maxim, who owns Down East Landscape & Design in Blue Hill, said in an interview he’s out straight this summer. He has found it’s taking longer to get certain products, like Bluestone and cement brick pavers. Manufacturers might have had 10 different styles of bricks in 10 different sizes and four or five colors, he said. Now they’ve eliminated the less popular sizes, styles and colors.

Les Weed, chief financial officer at the Island Employee Cooperative, which owns Burnt Cove Market and The Galley on Deer Isle, said consumer goods manufacturers are doing the same thing.

For example, a product that used to come in many different flavors or scents may now just come in a basic flavor or scent. “Someone who wants lavender is lucky to get it,” Weed said in a phone interview.

It’s also tough these days to be loyal to brands of paper goods, Weed said. “One week you can get Viva paper towels, the next week you can’t.”

He blames the global supply chain for other kinds of shortages, like toilet bowl cleaner, disinfecting wipes and canning supplies.

“The national supply chain has been built on foreign dependence, and that’s been disrupted,” he said. “U.S. manufacturers have been working on it, but it will take a year. Supply chains do not react quickly to things.”

The Cheez-It cycle

Josh Theriault, general manager at TradeWinds Market Place, said in a phone interview he’s seeing much the same thing in Blue Hill.

“We’ve gone through a cycle,” he said. “For a little while, there wasn’t a Cheez-It around.”

When the pandemic first hit, toilet paper was in short supply, then flour, he said. “Paper plates have come and gone, and canned tomatoes are in short supply now,” he said.

One thing you can get at TradeWinds that you probably can’t get at Hannaford stores, Theriault said, is vinegar. He knew there was always a shortage at this time of year because of pickling enthusiasts, he said. So he laid in an ample supply.

Cheez-Its are back, too.