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What happens when people want all the air fryers and then, suddenly, they don't

An air fryer awaits its buyer at a Kroger store in Kentucky in 2020, when the kitchen appliance became a hot seller.
Scotty Perry
Bloomberg via Getty Images
An air fryer awaits its buyer at a Kroger store in Kentucky in 2020, when the kitchen appliance became a hot seller.

After two pandemic years of stocking up on stuff – desk, chair, bookshelf, dresses, blender, knives – Rachel Premack is now all about travel and saving what she can. Last year, she had the stimulus dollars and nowhere to go; now, she's got weddings and family visits and worries about rising prices.

This, on a nationwide scale, became the recipe for a whole new problem for some U.S. stores: a glut of inventory.

"It is just a really bizarre back and forth kind of situation," says Premack, who has followed all this as an editorial director at the logistics outlet FreightWaves. "Inventory managers at major big box stores don't even know how to navigate what's happening anymore, they are just exhausted."

Big box stores like Target and Walmart are particularly working through an excess of certain items.

Target has specifically named TVs, kitchen appliances, outdoor furniture, electronics and fitness supplies, with the CEO saying the chain did not anticipate "the magnitude" of the spending shift from goods to services. Some clothing stores, too, such as Gap, got stuck with too many hoodies and athleisure as office workers quickly jumped back into suits and dresses.

"If you think about it, [stores are] ordering goods three, six, even nine months in advance," said Mark Mathews, vice president of research development and industry analysis at the National Retail Federation. "Retailers base their forecasting on historical behavior. But there is no template for what consumer behavior looks like coming out of a pandemic."

This year's hot retail term is the bullwhip effect.

It describes how dips or jumps in demand can get exaggerated by retailers, their suppliers and manufacturers. Take the pandemic darling, the air fryer. When demand suddenly rises, stores rush to avoid empty shelves, ordering a few extras just in case. Their suppliers also order extras from factories, which also make even more extras – until, abruptly, there are too many air fryers right as people are kind of done buying them.

What does that mean now? Shoppers might see sales on some items, such as storage baskets or armchairs, particularly at big box stores. More goods will go to liquidators and discount stores. But it also means another chaotic year for suppliers, like Curtis McGill from the Texas toy company Hey Buddy Hey Pal.

The other day, a large retailer completely rescinded a commitment to buy one of McGill's best-selling sets. A big toy trade show produced fewer orders, too, he said, by over a third. Stores are cautious about future demand – partly because of inflation uncertainty, but partly because their money is tied up in storing and sorting out the inventory glut.

"You could say for being in the toy business this last probably 12 month [period] has not been as much fun as it should be," McGill said.

The shopping frenzy has slowed but hasn't ended.

In the next few weeks, new data will show how long this inventory glut might last, said Jason Miller, who tracks retail inventories and sales at Michigan State University. Initial evidence suggests the retailers with bloated inventories are already starting to get things under control.

Still, importers continue bringing in near record-high amounts of goods to the U.S., he said. That's because even though last year's shopping frenzy has slowed, Miller said, people are still buying more products than they did before the pandemic.

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Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.