After a summer season that saw a run on picnic tables, bikes and pool floats, Americans are facing the prospect of a winter in which Covid-19 is still a threat, social distancing measures remain the norm and indoor gatherings are restricted or banned — all of which have made hot tubs, fire pits and patio heaters literally hot commodities.
Brienne Volpe, an accountant in New Windsor, N.Y., said she hasn’t been able to find patio heaters in stock anywhere.
“The only one that wasn't on backorder had horrible reviews,” she said. "We’re going to keep looking,” she said, since her two daughters would be able to play outside even when it gets cooler, and she and her husband would be able to socialize in an outdoor and socially distant setting.
“If this goes through the winter, not everybody’s comfortable going inside,” she said. “We actually have a few friends who don't want to go inside at all, and I don't necessarily want as many people in my house as I would have.”
Julie Noble, spokeswoman for online home design and decor platform Houzz, reported that sales for Adirondack chairs, rocking chairs and outdoor lighting all rose towards the end of the summer.
“Outdoor products spanning patio heaters and tabletop fireplaces continue to be popular,” said Molly Delaney, spokeswoman for online home goods retailer Wayfair.
That is, when consumers can get hold of them.
“I can't find one online that won't take a month to get here,” said Jamie Mastronardi, a teaching assistant in upstate New York whose online searches for a patio heater have so far proved fruitless.
In the summer, she said, “We've been able to see people outside, so we could socialize.”
But with two kids in elementary school, she is worried that the upcoming months will pose a unique challenge.
“We won’t make it through the winter if we don’t socialize, but yet we have to be careful,” said Mastronardi, who has health issues that put her at risk for complications from the coronavirus. “Staying safe and balancing the socialization is very hard. I don't want my kids to suffer the effects of not socializing because I'm at risk,” she said.
"Activities that can help you stay fit and allow you to social distance are going to be popular.”
The imperative to maintain a distance from others, even during leisure pursuits, is driving people to stock up on warm coats and outdoor-sports gear like snowshoes and snow tubes.
“I think the other major social change we’ll be living with for some time, maybe forever, is social distancing. Activities that can help you stay fit and allow you to social distance are going to be popular,” said Matt Powell, sports industry adviser at The NPD Group, a market research firm. “I think people are preparing to go outside as the weather gets colder.”
Powell predicted increased sales for snow sports gear like ski equipment, snowshoes and snow tubes. “I think the outerwear business also will be good,” he added.
Early reports bear this out, with the CEO of L.L. Bean telling CNBC that snowshoes and sleds were already in high demand before Labor Day, along with cold-weather clothes and boots.
“I can certainly say we are seeing more people getting outside,” said Mike Smith, executive director of the Outdoor Sport Institute, a Maine-based nonprofit that promotes outdoor fitness hobbies.
The flip side of that equation is that Americans also are making over their dwellings in preparation for months spent primarily at home. “As the colder months set in, we expect consumers to spend on items they can enjoy indoors and that will benefit their time spent inside,” said Alexis DeSalva Kahler, senior research analyst for retail and e-commerce at market research firm Mintel.
With more families adjusting to the prospect of long-term working and learning from home, sales of office furniture and equipment, including computer hardware and electronics, are booming. “Computers have been really strong this year,” said Rob McGovern, CEO of retail data-science firm PreciseTarget. “One thing that we all learned is that video takes a lot of bandwidth.”
Wayfair said searches for "desk" have surged by more than 300 percent, and Houzz’s Noble reported a similar spike in demand for desks, ergonomic chairs and workstation components for at-home school and work.
“The Houzz community is turning their attention indoors in preparation for cooler months ahead,” she said.
The prospect of this much time in the house has Americans seeking out creature comforts, as well. According to Wayfair, sales of bar tools and accessories, along with kits for making home-brewed beer, are soaring.
“Customers are focused on making their spaces comfortable. Pillows and throw pillow searches have increased,” Wayfair’s Delaney said, adding that searches for “pillow” have climbed by 150 percent over the past two months.
Lindsey McBride can attest to that. Pillows have been flying off the shelves of House of York, her home goods, antiques and gift store in York, Penn.
McBride said her customers are in nesting mode, snapping up fringed throw pillows and blankets in neutral earth tones, natural materials like terra-cotta and bamboo, and candles with names like “Chill Pill” from Bohemian Rêves, a vegan manufacturer based in Florida.
“The candles I get from there go so fast,” she said. “It seems like a common thread is definitely this bohemian kind of vibe, with textures that evoke some sort of feeling.”