'A mental holiday': Puzzles flying off the shelves as COVID-19 keeps people at home
TORONTO -- With the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus, Canadians are spending more time indoors. For many, this has sparked a newfound interest in an old pastime.
More families are finding that missing piece of fun in jigsaw puzzles. In fact, manufacturers are seeing increases in sales like never before.
Ravensburger, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of jigsaw puzzles, has seen an astronomical rise in the number of kids and adult puzzles sold over the past two weeks. In North America alone, the company reports a 370 per cent increase in organic sales year-over-year. Demand is so high that the company is no longer taking orders on its website.
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“What we saw in the last couple of weeks is a surge in demand that is equivalent to the likes of a Christmas surge, and that’s really unprecedented for this time of year,” Stephane Madi, head of Ravensburger Canada, told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday via telephone.
New York-based Buffalo Games has seen a similar surge in the sale of its puzzles. CEO Nagendra Raina predicts the company, one of the largest jigsaw puzzle manufacturers in North America, will be completely sold out in the next few days.
“Last week alone, we sold over a million puzzles,” Raina told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Tuesday. “We’ve been trending upwards of 1,500 per cent [increase] versus the same period last year.”
The sales of puzzles and games across North America have gone up significantly this month, confirms Joan Ramsay, director of client development for entertainment at NPD Group. The research firm has also seen an increase in the sale of other items often found at home, such as computer monitors and small kitchen appliances.
These boosts in sales began the week ending March 14, around the same time various provincial governments first announced the closure of schools and other facilities. With many families now looking for something to occupy their time, puzzles are becoming an increasingly popular purchase.
“Parents are looking for things to do as a family to fill time and keep their children – and themselves, honestly – occupied,” Ramsay told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday via telephone. “They aren’t looking for the 10-minute activities anymore, they’re looking for things that can take an hour or two for quality family time.”
It’s no surprise, then, that some of the best-performing puzzles have been ones with higher piece counts. Among the top five puzzle collections sold by Ravensburger in Canada are the Disney Collector’s Edition series, the Canadian Artist Collection, and Star Wars series, each featuring 1,000 to 2,000 pieces.
Not only are puzzles a good way to interact with family members and pass the time at home, they’re also fairly cheap – the average price of a puzzle in Canada is $13, according to NPD data.
Despite this newfound interest in jigsaw puzzles, they have been around for years, explains toy industry expert Chris Byrne. They were introduced in the 18th century by British cartographer John Spilsbury, who taught children geography by cutting up maps and having them put together the pieces. By the 1930s, broad-based commercial production of puzzles began in the United States and they became especially popular during the Second World War.
“Doing puzzles was a way to keep people calm and focused, and there’s a sort of precedent for doing them when sheltering in place,” he told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday. “In these really stressful times, they take people’s focus off of whatever is going on and it’s kind of like a mental holiday.”
Puzzles have done increasingly well in the Canadian market over recent years. Figures from NPD Group show steady growth in the sale of puzzles over the last few years. From 2017 to 2019, sales have seen low double-digit increases year-over-year – 10 per cent in 2017, 12 per cent in 2018, and 6 per cent in 2019.
“The overall toy industry was essentially flat over those three years, so the growth in the sale of puzzles is an aberration to the total toy industry,” said Ramsay.
While this latest increase in demand for puzzles is in line with what has been a growing trend, it certainly couldn’t have been predicted, adds Madi. With a rapid rise in organic sales, he admits that keeping up with buyer demand has been difficult.
“Our biggest challenge is dealing with the change in consumer behaviour, so there’s a capacity issue on our side because of the demand,” said Madi. “We’ve also had to, of course, prioritize the safety of our teams and reorganize how we work.”
Ravensburger’s puzzles are all manufactured in Germany and reach the Canadian market either directly from the European country, or through operations in the U.S. While both their manufacturing plant and warehouse operations remain open, the company has stopped taking direct orders through its website, and is only selling products through retailers.
As for Buffalo Games, manufacturing is at a halt. According to Raina, the company is currently in talks with Chinese suppliers, but doesn’t expect international production to be part of its long-term manufacturing plan. He hopes production will pick back up by mid-April, but nothing is certain.
“Unless formal guidelines allow us to get back to work, it’s going to be challenging for us to fulfill any orders from our retailers until such time as we are able to manufacture again,” he said.
What also remains to be seen is whether the ‘puzzlemania’ will stick around when – or if – coronavirus is eradicated. Puzzle manufacturers like Ravensburger and Buffalo Games remain hopeful that it will. Aside from their core group of puzzlers, both companies are noticing more new faces joining the puzzling community. They expect the upward trend they’ve been seeing over the last few years to continue.
“There are so many new communities, new family members, and new friends that are now experiencing – or re-experiencing – puzzles,” said Raina. “I truly think this is going to be a longer-term trend.”
With so many people puzzling for the first time in perhaps a long time, it can seem like puzzles are making a comeback. But Madi insists they never really left.
“The business was never gone, it was always there,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is a lot of first-time puzzlers and I think that’s why you hear a lot about puzzles ‘coming back.’”
This strong mix of newcomers and regular puzzlers is why he believes puzzles will continue to perform well in the market.
“This trend is going to continue to increase no doubt.”