Ontario has begun to get back to business this week. Who would have thought dog grooming services would be near the top of the list? The opportunities for us to spend money will slowly expand from the narrow boundaries within which we have been living as we start to be able to go into stores beyond those that have been deemed essential.
Our options for in-person shopping, and spending money more generally, have been constrained since early March (credit card sales were down by 60% in the week leading up to March 30th). In that same period of time, what we purchased went through a radical transformation.
Toilet paper was the first indicator that shopping priorities were shifting. We heard about the run on it before we returned from Mexico, so stuffed as many rolls as we could into our bags, anticipating a possibly serious shortage at home.
While there was no obvious explanation for people’s need to hoard this product, hoarding it we were: sales of toilet paper went up by 241% in mid-March. Purchases have settled down now, but even so, April sales were 81% higher than in the same time period last year. Just yesterday, I drove by someone unloading groceries from their car, and they had four 24-packs of toilet paper sitting in their driveway. That’s 96 rolls. Who even has room to store all of that? (Paper towels enjoyed almost as large an increase in sales – up by 227% in mid-March and now settled at an increase of 49% over the same time period last year.)
The initial frenzy of stocking up (or hoarding, depending on your perspective) was not surprising. We did not know exactly what lay ahead, and we wanted to know we were well supplied with essentials. Food and general household supplies were the focus for most of us: grocery store sales increased by 40% in mid to late March over the same time period last year and were 16% higher than in the week leading up to Christmas, which is the busiest shopping week of the year.
People also had other necessities in mind: I went on a bit of a shopping spree at Staples to ensure I had lots of supplies for a potentially long run of working from home. My partner put in his order for vegetable and flower seeds early in case there was a sudden increase in backyard gardening. Based on what I see on my regular walks, I would say he was right – there look to be a lot of Victory Gardens in the making in our neighbourhood.
Increase in demand for some products – hand sanitizers, gloves, face masks – was not surprising. But an 80% increase in sales of coffee filters? Even with people working from home, that seems remarkable. (Mind you, I don’t drink the stuff, so my opinion is pretty uninformed.) And why a sharp increase in condom sales at a time when no one can head to a bar for a quick hook-up?
A decrease in sales of cosmetics (44%) and clothing (50%) in March makes sense; after all, housemates are already used to seeing one another’s unadorned faces, and one of the real joys of working from home is that we can stay in our pyjamas all day long if we want to. But why have sales of infant formula fallen by 15%?
I’m sure I was not the only one to heave a sigh of relief when Doug Ford announced that, because they are an essential service, liquor stores would remain open during the pandemic. We always have a well-stocked liquor cabinet, but its shelves are now graced by a wider variety of choices than ever: bourbon, limoncello, Pimms No. 1 and absinthe.
The LCBO reports a significant increase in sales in March. While audited sales numbers won’t be available until June, the agency has noted that both the number of transactions and the size of each transaction were larger in March of this year compared to last. That increase was across all sources: LCBO outlets, grocery stores (where sales were up by 76% in late March) and online.
In the night kitchen
We have, it seems, become a nation of bakers, especially bread bakers. Both flour and yeast are hard to impossible to come by. I was well stocked with both upon my return from Mexico, but even so, my 10 kg. bag of flour that looked like it would last forever is past the halfway mark, and my yeast supply has been steadily declining.
I offered half of what I had to my daughter a few days ago – she and her family have become fervent followers of The Great Canadian Baking Show – because she had been unable to find any anywhere, a lament I have heard from friends in many parts of Ontario as well as Quebec. Fortunately, on my most recent trip to Food Basics, I found a brand new box of yeast packets. I resisted the urge to take them all and settled for just four, lest I be accused of hoarding.
Filling in the time
As we all settled in to lives without trips to the theatre, cinema, live musical performances, restaurants, the homes of friends and family – well, really, without trips anywhere — Netflix, with almost 16 million new subscribers in the first three months of 2020, more than doubled its growth forecast for the first quarter of the year.
Many of us are turning to reading rather than the adventures of The Tiger King. In Germany, France and Belgium, bookstores have been deemed essential and remain open. In Kingston, the independent Novel Idea may have had its doors closed, but readers could order books over the phone and have them delivered – often the same day – to our door.
And, of course, we are cooking, and cooking, and cooking. And then we are eating, and eating, and eating.
This week’s cocktail
The team I work with at one violence against women organization has established Zoom cocktail parties every two weeks as an important component of our pandemic self-care strategy. A couple of weeks ago, one of my colleagues arrived with an absinthe-based, Creamsicle-orange drink in a martini glass.
I was intrigued: absinthe has a darkly romantic history, largely due to its popularity in the late 19th and early 20th century with the artistic community in Europe. It was also purported to be dangerously addictive and possibly poisonous, although this seems to be more myth than reality.
For two glasses of Paula’s Pandemic Potion, combine 1 ounce absinthe with 4 ounces freshly squeezed orange juice, 3 ounces coconut cream and 2 Tbsp. simple syrup. Shake with ice and pour into two cocktail glasses, topping with some roughly chopped pistachios.
While sipping your Triple P, feeling as though you are sitting in a Paris café with Ernest Hemingway or perhaps Vincent van Gogh, consider using some of the money you have been saving during our forced time at home to make a donation to your local food bank in exchange for a song, custom written for you by University of Calgary law professor Howie Kislowicz.
We should all have such ambitious dreams, even if they are fuelled by a bit of absinthe.