Fresher flowers, dumbbells, puzzles: Unlikely bestsellers tell the story of the pandemic

Michael Lucci, co-owner of East Hampton Florist, said the demand for the flowers was so high that he had to find a new way to import them directly from countries like Holland and Ecuador, the advantage being that they are cooler and last longer.

People rushed and raided the shelves for the obvious during Covid – hand sanitizer, sanitizer, paper towels, yeast for all those booming home bakers – but they also rushed to buy unexpected things like dumbbells, balls, Krud Kutter, tiki torches, and zinc.

Among the more niche Covid bestsellers was home exercise equipment. Geary Gubbins, owner of Gubbins sporting goods store in East Hampton, said there was a two-month period during which calling his suppliers’ office was unsuccessful. “Nobody would come and pick it up because there was no inventory.”

The most requested items in his store, before the pandemic dried up supplies, were dumbbells.

At Gubbins, dumbbells were among the most requested items at the start of the pandemic, Geary Gubbins said.

“If you think about dumbbells, it’s not something that’s easy to transfer,” he said.

Michael Lucci, co-owner of East Hampton Florist, said he tore up helium tanks to fill orders for 20 to 50 balloons for birthday parties. “Grandma sends balloons to kids, virtual graduations, baby reveal parties.” When friends and relatives could not attend the celebrations in person, they sent balloons in their place.

The demand for flowers was so high, with so many people here and keen to do what they could to spruce up their quarantine quarters, that Mr. Lucci had to concoct a new way to import them directly from countries like Holland and Italy. ‘Ecuador. It’s 15% more expensive for him, he said, but “the product is a week and a half cooler, so it pays for itself.” Customers called to rave about the shelf life of the flowers, he said.

“Anything related to cleaning in any form” was in high demand, said Gene Phillips, owner of hardware store Henry Persan and Sons in Sag Harbor. “Two products I can’t keep in stock: anything that says Lysol or Clorox on it, and that’s to this day.”

To fill the Lysol and Clorox void, people have found alternatives. “Other companies that made similar products like Krud Kutter sold well,” Phillips said. “In fact, when we were cleaning the counters, the staff preferred it to Clorox – the smell, everything.”

He could tell from people’s shopping habits that they were staying home. They bought patio heaters, fire pits, tiki torches and outdoor lights. “These were all things that sold out very quickly and it was hard to go back.”

“You walked into the store and the cupboards were empty. It looked like we would go broke,” said Lisa Blinderman, owner of Second Nature Market in East Hampton. As for supplements, “we couldn’t keep them on our shelves.” Zinc was the number one seller. Even now, she says, she could order 50 bottles and only get two. “Elderberry, vitamin C, all forms of gummies, liquids, probiotics, oil of oregano, mushrooms, green powders. Ms Blinderman rattled off items from the store’s new section dedicated to the wellness products people have been turning to during the pandemic. Nature’s Plus Tri-Immune is enjoying its 15 minutes of fame, she said, as are many supplements the store has sold for decades.

While the store normally “attracts the most health and wellness savvy, we are now seeing customers who were not our traditional health food store shoppers.” Ms Blinderman believes she could have attracted customers thanks to the massive influx of people into the East End, as well as times when Stop and Shop ran out of paper towels.

At Botanica Bazaar in Amagansett Square, Kati Tikkanen, a saleswoman, also reported that LivOn Labs Lypo-Spheric Vitamin C was hard to keep on the shelves as people try to keep their immune systems as boosted as possible. At $47 for a month’s supply, concentrated vitamin C is more bioavailable than regular vitamins that are only partially absorbed, Tikkanen explained.

Loungewear is selling particularly well during the pandemic, said Lynda Hernandez of Bonne Nuit in East Hampton, but customers are still opting for lingerie.

In the same spirit of self-care, Lynda Hernandez, assistant manager of Bonne Nuit in East Hampton, said for her customers, it’s all about loungewear. “Our basic jersey pajamas go really fast,” she said, naming the Eberjay sound as one of the best sellers. “No surprise” wire-free bras had their moment, she said, and as to whether the lingerie was selling or not, she laughed. “You would be surprised!

Jessica Hom, general manager of White’s Apothecary in East Hampton, also noted that personal care items like mouthwash and toothpaste were definitely on track in terms of sales.

Small businesses were “a bit more nimble in supply chain work,” said Charlotte Sasso, co-owner of Stuart’s Seafood Market in Amagansett. Stuart’s didn’t suffer from the usual shortfalls as “there was a lot of seafood around because the restaurants didn’t need it”. And, Ms. Sasso was also able to buy in bulk and offer high-demand ingredients. “IGA can’t get a 50-pound bag of flour and put it in five-pound bags,” she said, but her store could. Stuart’s began selling more general groceries than ever before to accommodate its regulars who couldn’t find anything else.

“If I couldn’t get organic milk, people who still have it would get regular milk. They weren’t that valuable.”

If the abundance of seafood has set the situation in East Hampton during the pandemic, so has the dearth of adult puzzles depicting covers of The New Yorker by New York Puzzle Company. “Here we’re sitting on east Long Island with the perfect audience,” speculated Glen Waddington, co-owner of The Wharf Shop in Sag Harbor. Last January, she ordered “enough puzzles…to stock until August”, but by mid-April all the adult-level puzzles were gone. The companies producing them “couldn’t keep up with the demand,” she said.

Large Lego sets sold “like crazy” for parents trying to entertain their children at home, she said, but Lego also couldn’t keep production going when factories closed for three months. A good number of stuffed animals were selling too, she thought perhaps for the extra comfort that people of all ages seemed to need.

Comfort was also a theme in the world of food. At Villa Italian Specialties in East Hampton, Sam Muntaz, the store manager, said people were buying a lot of ready meals and sales of hot soups were up 50%. Louis Cabrera, cashier at La Fondita in Amagansett, also recognized a comforting theme of soups and steaks.

At Hampton Chutney on Amagansett Square, chicken curry over rice was a dish co-owner Isabel MacGurn had flagged as a potential Covid comfort food based on the store’s unusual speed.

The battle for paper products, however, was most important for Mr Muntaz and Ms MacGurn, who currently pay double for items like aluminum foil, shopping bags and cardboard drink trays.

“That one sticks out a bit,” said Veronica Thierse-Bickley, barista at Jack’s Coffee, where trays were scarce thanks to “triple the population ordering every 15 drinks.” Jack’s was so overwhelmed with the city’s clientele decamping to the South Fork that “we had to bring coffee from the city on the Jitney”.

“We were walking into the store and there was nothing in it,” Ms Thierse-Bickley said. The store consumed so much coffee that staff had to remove bags of packaged ground beans so customers could brew more. “It was like that.”