During the height of the pandemic, Americans were reduced to trolling the internet or making a mad dash for – of all things – toilet tissue. Two years later, this odd and unexpected situation of spending so much time scavenging for the basics seems to have metastasized across the consumer landscape. One can’t help but sense that a new shortage of some run-of-the-mill item is lurking just around the corner. Essentials such as baby formula, feminine hygiene products, and band-aids appear on the shelves only to quickly disappear into thin air. Two words, which most of us had never heard – supply chain – now haunt shoppers day-to-day and month-to-month.
This never-ending shortage of necessities is eerily reminiscent of life in the former Soviet Union. Photographs of drab people standing in line for hours for one item made us feel lucky to live in the good old USA. But let’s face it, we never really identified with those people as we cruised down Aisle 9, which was stacked 12 feet high with 40 different brands of coffee.
Perhaps now we can.
The oddest things are missing from the supermarket shelves on any given day. Bottles of diet ginger ale and Coke Zero are in stock one week only to become an apparition the next. Americans are generally forgiving people. We understand paying more for things, but when they are completely unavailable – at any price – shoppers move into scavenger mode.
Thus, time spent hunting for what we need or want has increased exponentially. No beef broth at Safeway? Well, let’s just pop on over to Publix. None there, either? How about a quick spin at Harris Teeter? Nope. Maybe a hasty jaunt to Giant will do it. Two hours and four grocery stores later, we may or may not have scored the goal; if we do, it isn’t easy to talk ourselves out of hoarding.
This is when shopping becomes not merely time-consuming but a moral dilemma. Should I grab every cardboard box of beef broth or leave a few for the next poor soul who wants to make pot roast too? The physical time and the emotional energy involved in foraging for food becomes exhausting. Maybe one would be better off just buying frozen? That is until one arrives at the frozen food aisle only to find it looks like a bombed-out shelter with a grand total of two Stouffer’s French bread pepperoni pizzas available. Is it hoarding if you take both?
Undoubtedly, American life is just more challenging than it used to be. Because we’ve had it so easy for so many decades, do we have a right to complain? You’re damn right we do. As the wealthiest nation on the planet, we have a reasonable expectation to purchase such basics as toilet paper and tampons. We should be incensed at the hapless, incompetent Biden administration intent on assigning blame for everything that ails us to (a.) Putin, (b.) greedy corporations, or (c.) all of the above.
Do we really care who is at fault for turning the scavenger hunt game into a reality? We do not. However, there is one trick American consumers have up their sleeves that those pitiful folks in the former Soviet Union did not: We still have the vote. And in exercising our franchise, we have the ability – perhaps even the duty – to throw those incapable of helping us out of office.