Jigsaw puzzles have become popular in-home entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic. As Kristin Noone explains in this collection, puzzles offer builders a myriad of connections as well as social and health benefits.1 In addition to exploring the user side of jigsaw puzzles, it is important to analyze them as industrial products. While the pandemic has brought financial hardship to many economic sectors, the jigsaw puzzle industry is continuing an economic renaissance that predates the pandemic.
In the early months of the pandemic, shoppers preparing for the virus’ arrival snapped up toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and puzzles and games to keep busy at home. As the early weeks of shut down turned into months of social distancing, shuttering of entertainment venues, and cancellation of events, people sought entertainment beyond their screens. This created shortages in home entertainment retail sectors, including adult jigsaw puzzles.
Commentators seemed to “discover” puzzles as the pandemic began. The Wall Street Journal ran three articles referring to “jigsaw puzzles” in 2020. In the previous seven years, the paper mentioned puzzles only twice, in 2013 and 2017.2 Despite the popular focus on puzzles by American news outlets at the start of the pandemic, demand for analog jigsaw puzzles was increasing before the pandemic began. To illustrate, in 2019 Ravensburger AG, the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle manufacturer, had its “highest sales figure in its history EUR 524.2 million*, an increase of 6.7% on previous year [sic].” This continued five years of growth in the toy industry, where the company argues, people increasingly seek “hands-on activities and analog games that offer relaxation and social interaction in contrast to the digital world we live in.”3 A 2018 Ipsos survey found approximately half of Americans “puzzle at least once a year.”4 COVID-19 containment measures further accelerated the pre-pandemic increase in demand.
With the onset of state stay-at-home orders in March, demand for jigsaw puzzles increased exponentially. To illustrate, adult jigsaw puzzles moved up several thousand places to become one of the top 10 searched for items on Amazon.com. The Wall Street Journal reported that “puzzles for adults” achieved the number seven spot on March 24th, 2020, along with cleaning supplies and toilet paper.5 Ravensburger reported sales up 370% year-over-year in spring.6 While the company sold seven puzzles each minute in 2019 in North America, this figure rose to approximately 20 puzzles a minute in 2020.7 In March 2020, the president of Ceaco, the second largest U.S. manufacturer of puzzles, reported sales at a large retail customer “were up 300% over the same week the previous year.”8 This demand continued as did the pandemic and second-hand sellers online engaged in price gouging as store shelves emptied.9 By November, Buffalo Games, the largest producer of jigsaw puzzles in the U.S., noted that in-store purchases of its games and puzzles increased from $120 million in previous years to $250 million in 2020.10
While fostering the popularity of the product, the pandemic disrupted its production and supply chains. At the start of the pandemic, Amazon stopped receiving jigsaw puzzle shipments, focusing instead on “household staples and medical supplies.” Ravensburger sent puzzles meant for Amazon to large brick and mortar retailers as well as small toy stores, which accepted deliveries.11 To meet demand, the company stopped selling puzzles on its own website, starting in the spring of 2020 and continuing as of writing. When attempting to buy online, Ravensburger presents potential puzzle purchasers with a pop-up message asking, “Where are all the puzzles?” The answer is at retailers with store fronts, not online.
Unlike digital games that can be produced and distributed online, analog puzzles are produced in factories by a range of companies, from small firms to multinational corporations. While demand rose in the spring 2020, pandemic regulations impacted production and supply networks. In some cases, factories closed due to their “nonessential business” status limiting production, although this varied depending on location. In Massachusetts, Ceaco closed in April as manufacturing shut down in the state.12 A smaller producer in Colorado, Liberty Puzzles kept its factory open but sent its 70 employees home due to the state’s stay-at-home order. The businesses’ owners sought to produce puzzles on their own.13 The pandemic hindered other puzzle producers less. Ravensburger’s European factories continued production14 and its three U.S. warehouses in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Washington remained open with COVID-19 safety measures to protect employees.15 Other producers, like Springbok, and distributors, such as Puzzle Warehouse, remained open and hired additional employees to meet demand.16
Ten months after “the great puzzle shortage” of 2020, customer demand remains high and supply limited. While Ravensburger’s website asks, “Where are all the puzzles?” puzzle producers and consumers can answer “in the homes of puzzlers.” Despite the huge increase in puzzle demand in 2020, the upswing in jigsaw puzzle sales began before the pandemic. The heightened demand signals a bright near future for the corporations and their employees that produce and distribute puzzles.