Yes, hand sanitizer and toilet paper are COVID-19 quarantine essentials. So, apparently, are jigsaw puzzles, bread machines and paint.

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Kari DeHaven has been baking since she was a kid, learning from her grandma.

But she’d never tried sourdough until a new work-from-home routine and inspiration from social media convinced her to give it a shot. Since Friday, she’s made two loaves and some sourdough waffles.

“One great thing with baking is it gives you a little bit of a sense of control. In the chaotic world we’re living in, it’s soothing to be working with my hands in the kitchen,” said DeHaven, 26, who’s staying with family in Sycamore, Ill. “Touching, tasting, utilizing all my senses helps ground me.”

She’s not alone. So many people have been firing up their ovens that consumers say flour and yeast can be tough to find.

Faced with orders to hunker down at home in an attempt to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, consumers stocked up on canned beans and cleaning products. But stores and analysts said shoppers also snapped up items that aren’t obvious essentials, like electric skillets, house paint and puzzles.

Families with parents working from home while kids are out of school need ways to fill the time. So do people social distancing while living alone.

People feel good when they’re engaged in activities that take a bit of effort and skill or involve learning something new, said Howard Nusbaum, a cognitive psychologist and neuroscientist and director of the Center for Practical Wisdom at the University of Chicago.

“We feel better doing it because we’re improving ourselves and the situation around us,” he said.

It’s especially true if the activity makes people feel more socially connected, whether that means taking on a project that can be shared with friends or family — like a fresh-baked loaf — or just talking about it with them afterward, he said.

Sourdough, in particular, seems to have attracted bakers looking for a new challenge. Melissa Wongkamalasai-Monar, owner of pHlour Bakery & Cafe in Chicago, said she usually sells one or two sourdough starters a month but sold 10 in about a week after Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect.

Joan Gumowitz Matthews, a retired anesthesiologist, said she thinks baking bread can be empowering at a time when people “feel lost and frightened and don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“You mix this glob of dough together, let it ferment and put it in the oven and it turns into something amazing,” said Matthews, 61, of Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Matthews recently had her license reinstated so she can go back to work alongside her husband, who is chair of the surgery department at University of Chicago Medicine. In the meantime, she’s been baking sourdough loaves, bagels and cookies for the university’s residents.

“I’m pacing here, wondering what I can do,” she said. “It feels odd to have my husband on the front lines and I’m sitting at home.”

Even consumers who aren’t ready to take on baking bread from scratch prepared for more time in the kitchen.

Sales of breadmakers and electric skillets were up 195% and 138% during the week that ended March 14 compared with the same week the prior year, according to data from market research firm The NPD Group. Consumers also bought more appliances for making sandwiches, pasta, waffles and juice. Water filtration device and vacuum sealer sales were up 256% and 113%, respectively too.

That week was “the wake-up call,” said Joe Derochowski, home industry adviser at The NPD Group. “We were making sure, in that phase, ‘Do I have the essentials for my quarantine?’ ”

For some consumers, those essentials included puzzles and games.

Rick Derr, owner of Learning Express Toys in Lake Zurich, Ill., estimates a little more than half of the customers calling his store to make a purchase want puzzles. He’s been sold out of 1,000-piece or larger sets for the past four days, though more are on the way.

“We don’t normally sell many big sets this time of year except to big aficionados,” he said.

His store is still open since it also sells educational games for students stuck at home. Customers can’t shop inside, but they can pick up products ordered ahead at the curb. March sales are down about 22% compared with the same month last year, Derr said. Still, sales of puzzles and games were up about 90% and 41%, respectively. Arts and crafts, plush toys and outdoor toys still make up the largest share of the store’s sales.

Games provide a way for people to socialize with their families while they can’t go out and see friends, while puzzles can help people home alone pass the time, said James Zahn, senior editor of The Toy Insider.

“It’s the screen-free play a lot of families are rediscovering,” Zahn said. “They’re finding they have something they didn’t have before, which is time.”

Others appear to be taking on home improvement projects.

When news of the pandemic first hit, customers came to hardware stores looking for disinfecting sprays, soap and toilet paper, said True Value CEO John Hartmann. Once those needs were filled — and especially as cities and states began ordering residents to stay home as much as possible — sales shifted.

“We’ve had a huge surge in paint, and with the onset of spring in many parts of the country, a lot of lawn and garden sales,” he said.

People typically repaint before they have people over during the holidays or over the summer — not early spring, said Linda Johnson, owner of Village True Value Hardware in Western Springs, Ill. Now that they’re working from home, they have more time to take on long-planned projects, or to realize they’re no longer fond of the color scheme in their homes.

“You sit around at home and think, ‘Oh my gosh, this is ugly,’ ” she said.

Lawn and garden sales are also higher than normal given spring hasn’t really hit Chicago yet, Johnson said.

JC Licht paint stores saw a similar spike, at least initially, said Sharon McGuckin, vice president of retail. She estimates paint sales were about 30% higher than normal in the week before Illinois’ stay-at-home order went into effect. A JC Licht store in Chicago’s West Loop that is part of the True Value network also saw a huge uptick in sales of grills and propane, she said.

Since then, the paint stores have moved to curbside pickup and delivery, though the West Loop hardware store remains open. Do-it-yourself project sales are back to normal levels, though people are still coming in for toilet paper, cleaning products and other household items, McGuckin said.

McGuckin thinks the do-it-yourself projects appeal to people feeling a little helpless in the face of a pandemic when there’s little they can do to help, except stay home.

“Everybody can control the color of their walls, and it’s affordable,” she said.

Of course, alcohol sales are also up, according to market research firm Nielsen. Alcoholic beverage sales were up 55% during the week that ended March 21 compared with the same week the prior year, led by spirits, with sales jumping 75%. Wine sales rose 66% and sales of beer, including cider, were up 42%, according to Neilsen.

Danelle Kosmal, vice president of beverage alcohol at Nielsen, said she thought growth likely peaked that week, when many consumers were stocking up.

Booze might not sound as wholesome as tools for a home improvement project or a game to share with the family, but it’s all about context, Nusbaum said. Someone buying a bottle of gin or six-pack of beers might be planning to sip Negronis during a virtual happy hour or kick back for a long-distance movie night with a friend.

“It’s why we’re doing it, how we’re experiencing it and who we’re experiencing it with that have the biggest effect on our psychology,” he said.


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