With so many people hunkered down due to the coronavirus pandemic, jigsaw puzzle sales are booming — and retailers are struggling to meet the increased demand.



Jigsaw puzzles have become a favorite pandemic pastime. The pandemic has been such a boon to the puzzle business, most retailers ran out of them. But as NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, they're slowly but surely putting the pieces together again.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: A few years ago, Matthew Goins, who is African American, was looking for puzzles for his three children. When he couldn't find any images of people who looked like his family, he and his wife started the online company Puzzle Huddle. He says their No. 1 seller is an image of an African American girl doing a science experiment.

MATTHEW GOINS: She has a chemistry set. She has two Afro puffs, and she's adorable. She has some lab glasses on.

BLAIR: And she flew off the shelves when the pandemic hit. Goins says with schools and day care centers closed, parents were trying to keep their kids occupied, and puzzles were a go-to product. His inventory nearly ran out.

GOINS: Most of our bestsellers got down to zero.

BLAIR: Puzzle Huddle designs and licenses artwork in the U.S., and the puzzles are manufactured in China. Goins says they started seeing delays back in January before the pandemic hit the U.S., but he says production is gradually coming back.

GOINS: None of our factories returned at full capacity, ready to, you know, crank out whatever products we needed on the drop of a dime. They all kind of returned very slowly and methodically and with, you know, careful production rates.

DIANE SKILLING: It is sky-high demand and rock-bottom production.

BLAIR: Diane Skilling is the president of SunsOut, a California company that's been making jigsaw puzzles for 26 years. She says they sell puzzles to about 3,000 mid-sized retailers. They design or license the artwork, decide on the piece count and hire contractors to do the printing and die-cutting.

SKILLING: When you're communicating with the end customer, I think sometimes they think that Santa and his elves make puzzles and just drop them on the doorstep. In actuality, it is factories filled with big, big machines.

BLAIR: Making puzzles is no simple matter, says Brian Way, co-owner of the online retailer Puzzle Warehouse.

BRIAN WAY: The kind of cardboard you have matters, how the picture is affixed to the cardboard, how it's cut. The reason there's a global shortage is because the manufacturing is so complex and so expensive that there's almost no new production coming onto the marketplace.

BLAIR: With the pandemic disrupting her supply chain, Diane Skilling says SunsOut is making big changes. She recently purchased three die-cutting machines. She says eventually, they'll be able to manufacture about half of the puzzles they sell in-house.

SKILLING: So we're very excited. And next week, we should have our first machine running. Our other two are due to come in right before Christmas. And I've told them I want big red bows on them like the Lexus commercials, so we'll see if they do that for me.

BLAIR: To families who like to do jigsaw puzzles around the holidays, Matthew Goins and Brian Way say, don't wait to the last minute to place your orders.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.