5 Things That Have Become Bafflingly Popular Now

Sure, this pandemic has been making us all buy way more toilet paper, streaming service subscriptions, stocks of canned beans, and so on. Everybody's deeply familiar with all that. But it turns out, this whole thing has made us start buying other things in surprisingly large amounts, too. For example ...

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5
In Italy, Millions Of People Started Buying More Cigarettes

When Italy's lockdown began, the government shut down everything except essential businesses like supermarkets, pharmacies, and ... uh ... tobacco shops? That's right; the government apparently felt cigarettes were essential enough to everyday people. That turned out to be a sadly accurate call, too, because lines for cigarettes sometimes got longer than ones for groceries. The data tells us the same thing: in the lockdown, lots of Italians took up smoking or started smoking way more: 3.9 million of them (roughly the population of L.A.), to be exact.

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Smoking is, of course, super dangerous right now. Epidemiologists think China's and Italy's high rates of smoking might have made the outbreaks there worse, which would make a lot of sense. Smoking whittles down cilia, the hair-like bits of tissue in your lungs that sweep away mucus and debris, and COVID can damage those too -- so if you smoke, you're giving a COVID infection a head start.

It's like running into the school bully after punching yourself.Olena Yakobchuk/ShutterstockIt's like running into the school bully after punching yourself.

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To be fair to Italy, there's been a small rise in cigarette buying worldwide, but that's probably mainly due to stockpiling. Also, it's worth noting that about 630,000 Italians used the pandemic as an opportunity to quit smoking -- which is great, of course, but that's not even a fifth of the number of people who are smoking more. So, something odd is going on.

What made people take up a lung-wrecking habit at a time when you need your lungs un-wrecked more than ever? In short, boredom and coolness. Part of the story is that there's just not a whole lot to do in the lockdown, so why not light up? Of course, that doesn't explain why other countries aren't smoking way more, and for that, we have to look at how Italy's culture treats smoking. When cigarettes initially showed up, they were pretty expensive, so smoking was as much a sign of wealth as, say, designer clothes -- and that's how Italian movies always portrayed it. For decades, they showed smoking as the cool, expensive hobby of rich and effortlessly elegant people.

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That's what probably made sure that, even though other countries eventually started seeing it as an unhealthy addiction for poor people, Italy didn't. So if you're stuck at home with nothing to do, you might as well start doing something that makes you look cool and a bit high-class, right? Yes, it might kill you, and will definitely make you smell, but your last days will be glamorous (minus the hacking).

4
Seeds Haven't Been Selling This Fast Since The Great Depression

While most of us spent quarantine watching Netflix and planting herbs in Animal Crossing, tons of people spent it planting herbs in real life. (While still watching Netflix because watching plants is boring after 2 minutes.) And we mean tons, because the seed industry apparently hasn't seen this level of demand since the Great Depression. You might think that this is the result of people wanting to grow their own food, but no -- all kinds of seeds are flying off the shelves. It seems the pandemic made people want to grow flowers, fruits, vegetables, and anything else they can get their hands on.

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The U.S.'s largest seller of heritage variety vegetable and flower seeds reported that March 30, 2020, was the busiest day in their 22 years in business, with 10 times as many orders than normal. That day took out half its stock and, going forward, they're planning to source a five-year supply of seeds rather than a two-year one.

It's not just an American thing either. Scottish company Kablom's demand skyrocketed tenfold since March, and the UK's Seed cooperative's sales are six times what they were at the same time in 2019. Seed's managing director says that all this makes him worried about what this is going to do to the global seed supply in a few years (because we were running out of stuff to worry about).

We might as well start playing apocalypse Bingo.Lubo Minar/UnsplashWe might as well start playing apocalypse Bingo.

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So, as heartwarming as it is to see your neighbors take up a hobby like gardening instead of playing the recorder or commenting on Nextdoor, it looks like there could be too much of a good thing. The International Seed Federation, the farming industry's representative body, says it continues to work to "sustain the delivery of seed to farmers," and the fact that they had to let us know that tells you that something's up. Hopefully, they'll succeed in making sure that cheap and abundant fruits and veggies don't become a distant memory of How Life Used To Be.

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3
Airbnb Bookings Are Up This Year

Travel is down everywhere, and people are staying home, right? Well ... not quite. It seems that people really, really want to go places, and they're not letting a trifle like a massive global pandemic get in their way. Just ask Airbnb, whose bookings from mid-May to early June ticked up by about 20% compared to the same time in 2019. That number is basically due to growth in the South -- for example, there were 82% more bookings in Mississippi and 41% in Florida. That's outweighing losses elsewhere, like in NYC, which dropped 32%, and Ilinois, which dropped 41%. OK, so why is all this happening?

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AirDNA, a data analysis firm that looks at the short-term rental market, says people want to book private homes because, unlike hotels, they're pretty much the perfect choice for a pandemic vacation. Not only do you get a lot more space than you do in a hotel room, but there are also no lobbies, crowded elevators, or busy hallways to keep running into other guests and staff.

The media must have lied to us.Ivanko80/ShutterstockThe media must have lied to us.

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Does all this mean travel is recovering? It's too early to say. People make a lot of bookings in the summer months anyway, and that's probably at least part of the reason why Airbnb sees this rise -- they're getting a bunch of people who want to travel right now, but don't want to book a hotel. We'll have to wait until September, when the busy summer season is over, and travel drops to normal levels, to see how things pan out and to know just how badly people are willing to risk deadly disease for juicy Instagram content.

2
Men Are Really Into Luxury Handbags Now

The RealReal, the world's biggest site for reselling luxury goods, says search demand for men's handbags is up 20% since the pandemic started. So, uh ... what's going on? Basically, the theory is that men need somewhere to put all the crap they have to carry around because of the pandemic. We all now have a bunch of stuff we need to have on hand at all times -- masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and so on. Women can just put those in their purse, but men need extra storage capacity.

Ideally, without looking like a doofus in cargo pants.Chainfoto24/ShutterstockIdeally, without looking like a doofus in cargo pants.

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That all seems pretty plausible, but it's kind of surprising the market for men's luxury handbags exploded that fast. All in all, it means that rich fashion-conscious guys want to look good while staying safe, and other rich fashion-conscious guys are trying to offload their extra handbags. Which kind of sounds like a conservative boomer's meme of the future liberals want.

But is that going to be part of the future -- in other words, will men still be super into luxury handbags once we've beaten COVID? It's hard to say for sure, of course, but men (who are into fashion) were getting kind of interested in handbags even before all this started, so it's definitely possible. In other words, one of the lasting impacts of COVID might be to normalize men wearing bags everywhere.

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1
We're Relying On A Small Rhode Island Foundry For All Our Kettlebells

Along with hand sanitizer and toilet paper, we've started running out of ... uh ... kettlebells. When the lockdown began, the kettlebell supply started evaporating super quickly. For example, Colorado gym equipment seller Rep Fitness says they did one month's worth of sales on March 13, the day a state of emergency was declared in the U.S. And that wasn't an isolated case -- the run on kettlebells (and other weights) was so bad, pretty much every store got emptied out.

Now they're almost worth their weight in gold.Jesper Aggergaard/UnsplashNow they're almost worth their weight in gold.

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Okay, so maybe people started buying them up like crazy once they realized they wouldn't get to go to the gym for a while, but that's not such a big deal, right? How hard can it be to make more iron weights? As it turns out, the answer is "very." Not only is the production process surprisingly complex, but most kettlebells are made in China, where factories shut down for a while due to the pandemic. So gym equipment retailers had to quickly scramble and find American foundries that can make kettlebells. But how hard can it be to find them?

The answer, again -- "very." Only a couple are still operating, because most of the business went to China over the years, and only one of them is making kettlebells: Cumberland Foundry, a 40-person shop that puts out 40-50 kettlebells a day. That's only a drop in the bucket, of course, but it's the best the industry can do. Bigger shops, like the Goldens' Foundry and Machine Company in Georgia, are busy making things like long-haul truck parts and don't want to get in Cumberland Foundry's way since they know that, for Cumberland, kettlebells are a lifeline. The result is that the entirety of the U.S.' demand for kettlebells is being satisfied by a small Rhode Island foundry.

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Oh, and the only reason they're making kettlebells is that they stumbled into it. In 2008, a local gym was unhappy with the two-piece kettlebells they were buying from big conglomerates (the handle kept coming loose, which is not very safe for anyone standing nearby), so they asked Cumberland to make a one-piece design. When the 2008 recession hit and sparked a minor kettlebell shortage, Cumberland just kept on making kettlebells to satisfy demand. Once the shortage ended, they switched to machine parts but kept the tooling for kettlebells, which turned out to be a great idea. In other words, the only reason people are getting any new kettlebells at all is because of a decision made by a small foundry 12 years ago.

Top image: John Haldezos/Unsplash, Arash Asghari/Unsplash

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