A popular, Low-Tech way to pass the time in quarantine

A popular, Low-Tech way to pass the time in quarantine: Puzzles

Monitoring Desk

Millions of people are preoccupying themselves in coronavirus isolation with  various forms of technology, from Disney+ to DoorDash and FaceTime to Fortnite. But after a long day of distance learning or working from home, there’s only so many glowing pixels we can endure. That could explain why an old-school trade is seeing an unexpected resurgence right now.

Puzzle makers say sales are booming. People are buying up everything from simple puzzles for kids to time-consuming, 5,000-piece jigsaws to survive the boredom of home isolation.

One popular puzzle company, White Mountain Puzzles Inc., said volume is so steep that it had to stop accepting orders and is two weeks behind on shipments. White Mountain is a family-run business in New Hampshire operating out of a small hamlet in a forested valley near Mount Washington. Co-owner Sean Minton was caught off-guard when direct orders through their website shot up 10 to 20 times higher than average in recent weeks. “Every day is like Cyber Monday but bigger,” he said. “Demand is off the charts.”

Puzzles and board games are constantly under threat from technology, including from digital recreations of themselves now commonplace on app stores. Yet, their chipboard construction has proved to be incredibly resilient, the tactile experience and interlocking pieces impossible to replicate on a touchscreen in a satisfying way.

Seven years ago, Minton surprised his friends when he decided to leave his gig at a San Francisco internet company to help run his father’s 42-year-old puzzle business. “When I made the move, I kept wondering to myself: Am I doing the right thing by jumping from the tech world to jigsaw puzzles?” he recalled. “My friends thought I was crazy.”

I visited White Mountain’s humble corporate headquarters in Jackson shortly before the first cases of coronavirus were reported in Wuhan, China. The petite shop is located just over a covered bridge between the town bakery and grammar school. It was surprisingly crowded with shoppers poring over myriad New England-themed puzzle boxes stacked on the carpeted floor. At the time, I had no idea this would be one of my last trips for months or that the world would soon face a health epidemic claiming more than 30,000 lives and wreaking havoc on the economy. The puzzle shop and school are now closed for quarantine, and the bakery is only offering curbside pickup.

At times during the outbreak, adult puzzles have featured in the top search terms on Amazon, alongside essential household items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Thomas Kaeppeler, president of Ravensburger North America Inc., a game and toy giant, said the company’s puzzle sales have rocketed 370% over the past two weeks. The company sold seven puzzles per minute in North America last year and expects to now reach 20 puzzles per minute in 2020. “The scale of this surge in puzzle sales is absolutely unprecedented,” Kaeppeler said.

The low-tech pastime got an endorsement from Conan O’Brien this month. The comedian posted a YouTube video talking about his swell of puzzle usage during the pandemic and showing how he sanitizes a White Mountain-brand puzzle with a boiling pot of water. “There’s a thousand pieces in here,” O’Brien joked. “Each one could possibly be infected.”

People aren’t just buying puzzles for themselves (or to perform YouTube stunts). Collage.com, a Michigan-based e-commerce site that lets customers print their photos on a variety of memorabilia, said puzzle sales have jumped six-fold since mid-March. Wally Nowinski, the site’s head of marketing, attributes a spike in web traffic to school closures and “lots of customers sending puzzles with pictures of the grandkids or dogs to family across the country. It’s a way to stay close, while also giving Grandma and Grandpa a reason to stay indoors.”

I caught up with Minton on Friday by phone, when he was driving out to one of White Mountain’s warehouses. He was hoping to reopen the facility, which shut down last week for safety precautions, so they could get back up to speed on puzzle shipments. His team of about 20 is working remotely around New England, and he’s trying to navigate supply chain constraints at factories in Indiana and Massachusetts. Amazon is running out of puzzles, he said, because the company is prioritizing stock of essential goods. Meanwhile, third-party sellers are “unfairly gouging customers,” he said, charging more than $50 for some White Mountain puzzle sets, which typically retail for around $20. “There’s a lot of moving parts, but every puzzle company is probably going through this right now.”

White Mountain has attempted to modernize its designs as a way to appeal to new audiences. It tried political-themed puzzles after Barack Obama and Donald Trump were originally elected president, but they were duds. People apparently didn’t want a reminder of Washington drama, Minton said. The current crop of bestsellers for White Mountain resembles what the list might have looked like in the 1950s: puzzles featuring images of a classic American diner, Hostess desserts and iconic cereal boxes.

Last week, a sales rep at White Mountain asked Minton if they should consider rushing out a coronavirus-themed puzzle. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? No!’” Minton recalled. “’People are puzzling to relax!’”

Tech companies are continuing to chip in on coronavirus response. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and its parent Alphabet Inc., pledged $800 million in corporate relief funds for health workers, researchers and small businesses. Apple, meanwhile, introduced a digital screening site to help users determine if they should be tested for the illness.

And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Facebook Inc. is overhauling its product roadmap, in response to rapidly changing user behavior resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

As confirmed infections continue to soar, tech companies from Lyft Inc. to SoftBank’s OneWeb are grappling with the market meltdown. Lyft told drivers to go work for Amazon, and OneWeb filed for bankruptcy.

European government officials are calling on tech giants, including Microsoft Corp. and Twitter Inc., to step up their efforts in combatting misinformation about the spread of Covid-19.

Courtesy: (bloomberg.com)

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