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The 1600s had its Dutch tulip craze, and the 1990s had its technology stocks bubble. Now, the 2000s may have found its equivalent—in the form of a celebrity-endorsed sweet potato pie.
During a week where the 2016 U.S. elections and grim news on terrorism captivated the headlines, singer Patti Labelle managed to create a sensation with her interpretation of a Thanksgiving favorite. With a little help from an effusive fan's viral video, the diva's sweet potato pies went on sale exclusively at Walmart last weekend. The pies, which sell at a retail price of $3.98, quickly sold out in locations across the country.
Scott Markley, a spokesperson for Walmart, told CNBC that despite the scarcity, the retailer has not completely sold out of Labelle's pies. However, he cited "incredible demand" for the product.
"We are moving pies from stores where they are still available to stores where there are unavailable, and moving them out of distribution centers as quickly as possible," Markley said. While he declined to give exact figures of how much in sales the baked good managed to ring up, he said that consumers snapped up the equivalent of 1 pie per second in the first 72 hours they were available.
The pie "is now the second-most searched item on Walmart.com next to turkeys," Markey said, adding that "search results for 'pies' went up by 2,000 percent" on the company's website. He also said Walmart had 2 million pounds of sweet potatoes already set for the next batch, suggesting the next scarcity could be in the root vegetable.
The pie phenomenon created a shortage that almost recalled the 1633-37 tulip craze, a famous textbook case of behavioral economics. That instance illustrated how unprecedented consumer demand and speculation can create massive price bubbles that inevitably burst.
A sweet potato pie isn't anyone's idea of a liquid financial asset. However, surging popularity for the pie in its first week of sales created a virtual black market, where online scalpers were offering resale prices of hundreds of dollars. In one case, 2 boxes were being offered up on eBay for an eye-popping $12,000.
So will 2015's pie craze end the same painful way it did for tulip speculators? Only time will tell.