The definition of a luxury problem, according to Olivia Kraus, a lawyer in Mount Vernon, N.Y., is the inability to buy something expensive that one can afford.
As such, she has lots.
In August 2020, Ms. Kraus ordered a generator through an electrician. It came in January 2021, she said.
That month, she went to a Jacuzzi dealer, who told her that she was “in luck,” that they had a Jacuzzi unspoken for arriving in January and two similar models arriving in February.
No other hot tub would be available until October 2021.
She picked one that could be scheduled to arrive in February. It arrived two weeks ago.
Apparently, Ms. Kraus said, “the factory in California was seriously slowed down for social distancing.”
All over the United States — or at least, all over the parts of it where people have jobs, disposable income and time to spare — shoppers are encountering the same thing: products that are sold out or on back order. That they are “hard to find,” or HTF in online parlance, naturally increases their desirability, sort of like “hard to get” used to be in relationships.
The reason some things are unavailable seems straightforward enough. Millions of people who before the pandemic weren’t at home much spent the last year testing the limits of their clothes dryers, dishwashers and stoves, and their living spaces groaned under the unreasonable demands.
Top brands like Viking, Bosch and Miele are all in high demand right now.
Dyson’s V8 Vacuum cleaner, lauded for its ability to erase pet hair, was nowhere to be found at the packed Home Depot in Chelsea on a recent Sunday (though it’s now back in stock).
The Breville Espresso Descalers from Williams-Sonoma has been another elusive item.
Marina Zenovich, a documentarian whose films include “Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic” and “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” picked one out in February.
A few weeks later, she opened her computer to a message informing her it would not be coming until late May, citing “temporary delays from our suppliers, vendors and artisans.”
At Restoration Hardware in the meatpacking district, a person at the front desk said last week that “most” sofas are still being delivered in 10 to 12 weeks, the normal time frame. But “most” doesn’t include the track arm sofa that Chris Peregrin, the global director of partnerships at the photography agency Magnum, ordered in April.
It is due to arrive in early August, thanks to what the person at the front desk said are issues obtaining velvets and Belgian linens. And a salesman at Truemart Fabrics in Chelsea said that it’s just as hard to get silks and cotton prints because there isn’t as much production in the cutting rooms.
Break out the tiny violins, right? If you can locate some.
Restaurants that offer food to go have a shortage in ketchup packets, the result of both a boom in takeout and the decision by many restaurants not to use bottles of it because of sanitary issues. Never mind that most evidence suggests Covid-19 rarely spreads via contaminated surfaces. Long-battered Heinz stock is on the rise.
Katie Sturino is the founder of Megababe, a four-year-old company that makes cruelty-free beauty products. She worried at the beginning of the pandemic that the stay-at-home economy could claim her business. The opposite happened. Freed from having to go to the office, perhaps, women began to experiment more with newer, more natural deodorants, just as they did with less structured bras. Sales of Rosy Pits, Megababe’s best-known product, soared, Ms. Sturino said.
It’s currently still available at Target, but she’s unable to offer sales through her own website.
Dr. Lara Devgan, a plastic surgeon on the Upper East Side, has had a similar experience with her line of skin care products — believing at first that they would be unnecessary, and finding instead that they were sold out.
“It’s not only that we’ve been looking at unflattering Zoom angles, watching our Botox wear off and our gray hairs grow in,” she said. “It’s that people are wearing much less makeup than they’ve ever worn before, so they’re taking things into their own hands.”
And putting ever fancier timepieces on their wrists.
Condominiums in the recently developed Hudson Yards cleared out in the spring and summer of 2020, but traffic at Watches of Switzerland, at 20 Hudson Yards, skyrocketed, according to the company’s C.E.O., Brian Duffy.
By the winter, it was nearly impossible to find Rolex sports models there in stainless steel or solid gold.
Some of this, Mr. Duffy said, was the result of production delays. Switzerland was shut down for much of the spring. Areas of Rolex’s factories had to be evacuated during Covid outbreaks over the summer and fall. All the while, the stock market soared, leaving high-earning investors with huge amounts of disposable income.
Still, Paul Boutros, the head of Phillips Auction House’s U.S. watches division, doesn’t see the possible end of the pandemic as being likely to change things. “I’ll put it this way,” he said. “If you are a regular person trying to buy your first good watch and you choose a Rolex sport watch, a Patek Phillipe Nautilus or a Royal Oak from Audemars Piguet and want to buy it on the spot — I think those days are over.”
Currently, Mr. Boutros is waiting on something else: a $4,329 Bull barbecue grill that he ordered from an online dealer in early April and won’t be arriving until July, at the earliest.
And Neal Bascomb, the author of biographies on Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler, has seen the renovation of his Philadelphia home grind to a halt because of a spray foam shortage that’s hobbled scores of construction projects in the area.
“It seems like a rather odd thing to stop construction, but there you have it,” he said, going on to note similarities between consumption today and consumption during the Roaring Twenties.
Both then and now, he said, there was “a crazy stock market,” “easy access to credit,” “scores of new products,” a growing wealth gap and a charismatic and temperamental industrialist, who not only transformed the car business but also became, as a result, arguably the defining technologist of the era.
The position of Henry Ford and the Model A, which arrived in 1927 in a multitude of colors and styles is now held by Elon Musk and the Tesla Model 3, which first arrived in 2013 and comes in a multitude of colors and styles.
As such, both economies have been defined by consumers buying lots of things, many of which they arguably cannot afford.
Yet substantial shortages across a variety of industries didn’t occur during the 1920s, according to A. Scott Berg, the biographer of Woodrow Wilson and Katharine Hepburn, because there was much less dependence on imports than there is today. “During World War I, the United States became a gigantic machine, manufacturing exponentially more than it ever had and producing more food than it ever had, as we began feeding a starving and war-deprived world,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Bascomb pointed out that the United States back then did not rely heavily on products from other countries. “We didn’t have this global shipping system that required semiconductors from Taiwan,” he said.
The problem is not likely to abate in the near future, according to John Pitzer, an analyst at Credit Suisse who specializes in semiconductors. “My best guess is that if the economy starts to reopen in the back half of the year and we start to see things really continue to pick up, the supply issues get worse, not better,” he said.
How that ends up affecting the economy is “beyond my pay grade,” he said.
But Mr. Bascomb had little doubt. “Inflation,” he said.