A key tool in the fight against COVID-19 has disappeared from American retail shelves at the worst possible time.
After sales exploded in March, personal thermometers frequently have gone missing in the weeks since, leaving consumers without a cheap and easy way to detect whether they’ve got a fever and might be part of the pandemic.
The shortage is even worse than with toilet paper. And the problem is not likely to get fixed for months unless customers spring for more expensive models – or if there’s an intervention of some sort.
“Lack of supply and huge demand,” said Stan Cohen, owner of 180 Innovations, a firm outside of Denver that imports thermometers for American retailers.
The supply-chain breakdown goes back to China, which makes about 90% or more of the popular thermometers normally found at American retailers such as Walgreens, CVS Health, Rite Aid and others, Cohen said.
How thermometers get to U.S. shelves
Before they land on the shelves at these retailers for as little as $6 to $10 each, such thermometers typically are manufactured in China and then transported in containers on ocean freighters. After that, they are imported into the U.S. and sent to a distribution center for shipment to retailers.
That process normally takes about three months or more. But these are not normal times, as evidenced by a storm of events that made thermometers exceptionally scarce for Americans:
►Before the coronavirus outbreak spread to the U.S., demand for these devices already was high because of flu season.
►Then, COVID-19 shut down China about the same time as the Chinese New Year.
►Then, the Chinese government made sure an ample supply stayed there, Cohen said.
►After that, COVID-19 spread in the U.S, spiking demand for these products to the point that they reached $78.4 million in sales for the four-week period ending March 22, an increase of 232% from the same period a year earlier, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
That’s also about when the supply started drying up. A week later, IRI’s data shows that personal thermometer sales nosedived to $8.7 million for the week ending March 29, a decrease of 58% from the previous week and just 85% of last year’s sales for the same period, when there was no pandemic.
The former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention even chimed in about the need for thermometers March 31 on Twitter.
“I sure hope SOMEONE is coordinating thermometer production,” Tom Frieden wrote. “Every household needs one. And buildings will need no-touch thermometers, tho they are far from perfect.”
His comments drew a string of complaints about the shortage, with many saying they ordered some but were told they wouldn’t be receiving them for a month or more.
When are thermometers coming back?
Cohen said he normally might import about 3 million thermometers per year from China, with CVS Health and Rite Aid being his biggest customers. He said the shortage recently prompted those companies to take the unusual step of ordering a batch of thermometers at a premium to be shipped via air freight instead of merchant ship – an intervention of sorts that is more expensive but should get the product on shelves for customers more quickly.
This could provide at least a temporary replenishment of supplies on real and virtual shelves in the coming weeks, though it’s unclear how long that supply might last or if it will lead to an increase in prices.
“We’re working with our supplier partners to get the right products on the shelves as soon as we possibly can,” said Rite Aid spokesman Chris Savarese, who declined further comment.
CVS also declined further comment except for also saying it is working with suppliers to meet demand.
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Cohen’s company is one of the biggest American private label companies in the thermometer import business along with Veridian Healthcare, another importer and distributor based in Illinois. In response to an inquiry to that company’s customer service line, a representative said stick thermometers are “filtering in all the way from mid-May all the way through July.”
“Non-contact thermometers will be filtering in June through August,” the representative said.
Asked the reason for the delay, the representative said, “coronavirus” and “China being down.”
This jibes with the normal ordering time, Cohen said.
“Our normal lead time, when we normally place an order, it’s two months before it ships and a month on the water” via merchant ship, Cohen said. “And we’re just now getting shipments from the factories, and that’s on limited production. It’s going to take a couple of months to get everybody resupplied.”
Two other popular thermometer brands, Braun and Vicks, are part of the Helen of Troy company based El Paso. A representative for the company declined to comment, saying the company couldn’t talk about it during the quiet period before its earnings call April 28.
“There are different types, from your basic mercury thermometer to digital, and they are mostly made in China,” said Patrick Penfield, professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse. “The issue with the thermometers is that demand has surged, and the Chinese manufacturers have had issues.”
Much of the thermometer demand recently is for infrared thermometers that don’t require contact with a person’s head or body. China used these to take temperatures and screen for sick people during its outbreak. In the U.S., a recent inspector general’s report for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that hospitals reported shortages of these thermometers needed for temperature screening.
“That’s the hottest product right now,” Cohen said. “They are hard to get. For like CVS, it was everything across the board. All the thermometers. We have temple thermometers, ear thermometers. All of them were just selling like crazy.”
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