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Crystal MacDonald cannot find SpaghettiOs with meatballs.

The Attleboro mother calls area grocery stores looking for the canned pasta meal so frequently that many managers are now familiar with her request.

It’s the only food her daughter, who has autism, will eat, so when it started disappearing in mid-April, MacDonald started buying as many cans as she could afford whenever she saw them. Now she checks about eight stores three or four times a week.

“Everywhere sells out of it quickly when they do get it in,” she said.

For Sarah DeMelo, the shortage is in canning supplies.

The Attleboro woman saw the pandemic as a reason to reduce her dependency on grocery stores for food, and is trying to can vegetables for the first time.

But jars, lids and pressure canners are sold out everywhere — even online.

It took separate orders to three different stores as far away as Easton to get the different materials she needs.

Sandra Spencer of North Attleboro spent last Wednesday traveling to nearly a dozen outlets to find a white desk for her daughter.

IKEA was completely wiped out and Target only had a few left, but none in white. Online retailers like Wayfair list an October shipping date. And even secondhand stores like Goodwill and Savers are empty, Spencer said.

She has three teenagers, all enrolled in some form of hybrid or remote learning this fall.

“It’s frustrating to say the least,” she said. “It’s like panic mode trying to find this desk.”

It started with toilet paper and Clorox wipes in March, but now area readers say pandemic-related shortages on food and other goods have expanded into every category imaginable.

On Facebook they reported shortages in printer ink, kayaks, paper plates, napkins, Popsicles, frozen fruit, home appliances and building supplies.

Beth Difiore can’t find crickets for her pet gecko Emily. In 10 years she has never seen a shortage like this one.

Barbara Lynch said the toy aisle at Target looks like “pre-Christmas” with slim pickings leftover. Many of the toys her children see advertised on TV simply aren’t on display anywhere. She’s worried how supply will keep up as the holidays approach.

Joseph Sarkis, a business professor and program director for the Masters in Supply Chain Management at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, believes the issue is the result of many decisions made on the fly, and through guesswork, as businesses try to survive an unprecedented time.

Sarkis has spent the last few months researching the impact of COVID-19 on supply chains, and found one of those decisions was to eliminate variety to focus on top sellers, ensure efficient manufacturing in a time of high need and reduce stress on suppliers.

COVID-19 safety guidelines and shutdowns in some locations have impacted the ability to make certain products across different parts of the supply chain, Sarkis said.

Even manufacturers themselves get their materials elsewhere, so many of the companies Sarkis interviewed said they looked at what source material was most available and reliable, and made decisions from there on what products they would continue to make.

Another factor was ensuring the most efficient manufacturing possible.

To create multiple products means workers have to break down and set up new equipment, essentially stalling production for half a day in some cases.

But if companies forgo the variety, they can see an extra day or two of production for their top-selling products.

In normal times, the switchover may not be as taxing. But in a time of high need, that extra capacity is crucial, Sarkis said.

“If they’re losing half a day of production, how will they fill demand?” he said. “In this environment, we’re seeing consumers are willing to give up variety just to get something. So some companies are keeping it as simple as possible so they have it.”

One large frozen pizza manufacturer he interviewed reduced their offering of 70 pizza products with varieties in sizing, packaging and flavors, to just 40.

That may be why some consumers aren’t seeing specific products they’re used to finding on store shelves, Sarkis said.

Another reason is a hesitancy for manufacturers to respond to sudden spikes in demand.

Sarkis pointed to the increase in toilet paper sales in March as an example.

Companies have to predict if the newfound demand will last. If not, and they ramp up production anyway, they risk having excess product and no sales when the market falls.

Sarkis said manufacturers are also cautious about the pressure this puts on their suppliers, as well. If they start increasing production, but no market comes, cancellations to their suppliers could cause a ripple effect of bankruptcy along the entire chain.

“Some companies can sell everything they make right now,” Sarkis said. “Some can’t sell anything.”

And he believes the dispersion of impact will continue to change until a vaccine is found.

Then comes the question of what happens next. Sarkis’ research is focusing on what companies learn from this crisis, which practices will continue, and what will go back to the way it was before.

“A lot of it, initially was guesswork,” Sarkis said. “We’ve never had a pandemic or anything like this before. This is a very different animal.”

The globalized economy that has linked every step of the supply chain so closely together only came about in the 1980s, Sarkis said. That means it wasn’t around during other major world events, like both world wars or the pandemic of 1918, when economies were still largely local.

“Now, everything is linked up, and the scale of disruption with coronavirus is also global,” Sarkis said. “Once you have those two things, it’s almost impossible to manage or predict what comes next.”

Kayla Canne can be reached at 508-236-0336, kcanne@thesunchronicle.com or on Twitter at @SCNAttleboro.

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