As coronavirus sweeps the country and sends millions sheltering in place, Americans are increasingly spending their time, and money, on jigsaw puzzles.
The majority of the U.S. population is now under stay-at-home instructions, and businesses across the country are sending employees home. In the face of what health officials warn could be months of widespread closures, consumers are snapping up the time-tested indoor games, depleting inventories and driving up prices.
Gamemaker Ravensburger has seen U.S. puzzle sales soar 370% year over year in the past two weeks, according to the company's North America CEO Filip Francke.
Francke said the company hasn't seen anything like this before in its 136-year history. In 2019, the company sold a total of 21 million puzzles globally, and recorded an average rate of seven puzzles a minute sold in North America. Factoring in the recent surge, the company is averaging closer to 20 puzzles sold per minute in North America for 2020.
"Puzzles are not a necessity, of course, but the consumer is clearly telling us that there's a large need that we can help fill at these times," Francke said.
Ravensburger's current volume rivals its typical holiday season peak sales, he said.
The surge in demand is familiar for Anne Williams, a puzzle historian and professor emerita of economics at Bates College. She said it's comparable to demand during the Great Depression.
In February 1933, manufacturers were producing 10 million puzzles a week, Williams said, and people could rent puzzles for a nickel a night.
Williams said it's not uncommon for Americans to turn to jigsaw puzzles during times of economic uncertainty.
"It's something you can control, whereas they felt that their lives were totally out of control as far as the economy went," Williams said. "It's also a challenge over which you can prevail."
Companies across the country are scrambling to meet rising demand for jigsaw puzzles. Online retailer Puzzle Warehouse hired 30 people to deal with a 10-fold order increase and associated shipping delays, according to CEO Brian Way. The company's sales have already exceeded those typically seen during Christmas.
Springbok, another major puzzle manufacturer, is shipping around the clock, according to the company.
And like most industries, puzzle makers are facing staffing headwinds. Liberty Puzzles, a wooden puzzle manufacturer based in Boulder, Colorado, has seen a huge uptick in orders, but had to send its 70 employees home after the state issued a stay-at-home order and closed nonessential businesses. Now, owners Chris Wirth and Jeff Eldridge are struggling to fulfill 750 puzzle orders themselves in an empty factory.
"Even if we can open with like five people in here ... we could be cranking out puzzles for everyone who wants them out there," Wirth said.
Liberty Puzzles will be paying the full salaries of its 70 employees at least through May, Wirth said. Despite increased demand, the company is still keeping its puzzles at the same prices, even though some of its used puzzles are being resold on eBay for twice their retail value, according to Wirth.
Ravensburger has kept open its three U.S. warehouses — in New Hampshire, Washington state and Pennsylvania — operating under increased safety precautions that include staggered shifts and social distancing among workers.
But there's no way to keep up with the spike in demand, according to Francke.
"It's really hard to get a hold of a puzzle right now," he said.
The company is mainly relying on mom and pop toy stores that offer curbside pickup or delivery options, or large retailers like Barnes & Noble and Target to sell puzzles. Amazon has shifted priority to carrying and shipping essential goods, Francke said, so brick-and-mortar retailers have proved a better option for Ravensburger.
Puzzle enthusiast Lisa Cohen, whose finished sets decorate the walls of her Rockville, Maryland home, said she's seen puzzle prices shoot up online.
"If you go on Amazon, they're gouging you," she said. "Puzzles that are $16.99 are on there for $60."
Cohen, a crisis hotline volunteer and former teacher, said she's resorted to leaving extra puzzles out on her front porch for people to take and enjoy. Despite demand, Cohen said people have been taking one or two freebies at a time.
"They're hard to get and they can be expensive for people, but it makes me feel good to be able to put them out there for people to enjoy them," she said.
Cohen said she's used to doing puzzles on her own, but during isolation, the activity has become a family affair.
"I have four kids and they were never involved," Cohen said. "Now, they're doing it too."
Ravensburger has seen a jump in sales of family and children's puzzles amidst the pandemic, Francke said, as more children learn from home. Difficult sets with higher piece counts are in demand, too. Ravensburger's Krypt line, which offers advanced puzzles of one color in varying shades, has seen a particular boost in popularity during the outbreak.
The company has also seen a jump in demand for puzzle sets with comforting themes such as a picture of mac and cheese or a cozy indoor scene, as well as those that depict an exotic location.
"Now that people can't travel, that trend is extra strong," Francke said.
The company is expecting interest in puzzles to continue to rise, as lockdowns drag on, and has already put in place high-volume delivery plans for the next two months.
"It's really hard to tell where the demand stops at this point," Francke said. "We will just do our best and try to reach retailers that are still open to get to consumers."
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect Ravensburger sold 21 million puzzles globally in 2019. A previous version mischaracterized the sales.