Puzzles, hair dye, bread: These companies are thriving despite coronavirus

Hair color startup Madison Reed is seeing more than a 10x increase in orders. Puzzle and baking manufacturers are also racing to keep up with demand.

Puzzles, hair dye, bread: These companies are thriving despite coronavirus
[Photos: Toa Heftiba/Unsplash; The Tonik/Unsplash; Hans-Peter Gauster/Unsplash]

At the start of the year, Madison Reed was flying high. The hair color startup had closed a funding round of more than $50 million and was operating 12 Color Bars (think Drybar salons, but for hair color) across the country, with plans to double its footprint in 2020. More than 1,200 Ulta stores carried Madison Reed’s entire product lineup, and the company was nearing profitability.


Then the coronavirus hit. Like other nonessential businesses, Madison Reed had no choice but to shut down its headquarters, followed closely by all Color Bar locations. The company’s manufacturing process was nearly compromised because the factory operates out of the Lombardy region in Italy, one of the areas most impacted by coronavirus. “Our manufacturer started, right at the beginning, to make hand sanitizer,” says Madison Reed founder and CEO Amy Errett. “But we’re their largest customer, so they continued to make hair color for us.”

It’s a familiar story for many small businesses. The spread of coronavirus has been a death knell for a laundry list of industries, from food service to hospitality to retail. Over the last six weeks, more than 30 million people have filed for unemployment. But in the midst of all this, as many Americans remain confined to their homes, some nonessential businesses are quietly prospering—and racing to ramp up production despite supply chain chaos.

The industries that are thriving seem to comfortably slot into our quarantined lives. With at-home hair color kits, remote workers can get coiffed for video meetings. Grocery deliveries and baking paraphernalia offer both sustenance and stress relief, while knitting kits and jigsaw puzzles provide a reprieve from excessive screen time.

“Our online business is up 10x, and it hasn’t wavered,” Errett says. The bump in sales has allowed the company to retain colorists from shuttered Color Bars and transfer them to Madison Reed’s call center, where they field questions from customers.

Madison Reed has already exceeded its projected subscriber count for mid-2021, according to Errett, and reactivated memberships are up sixfold. Errett says the company has ramped up its manufacturing process, under the assumption that the business will keep growing. “Hair color has a six-year shelf life,” she says. “So we’re not in a place where we’re not going to go through the inventory.”


In recent years, Madison Reed expanded its inventory, which gave the company more of a buffer when coronavirus hit. But nothing could have prepared Errett for the scale of this surge. “I don’t care how much product you have,” Errett says. “In a 10x overnight scenario, you’re just like, really? Take all that planning and throw it out the window.'”

One major challenge during this time has been fulfillment. “All of these warehouses have social distancing,” Errett says. “[They] have half the number of people on the truck and in the warehouses. And they’ve had people that have been sick.”

Its funding and success with online sales have put Madison Reed in a unique position to help colorists who are currently out of work. Last week, the company launched an affiliate program that lets colorists earn money by introducing their clients to Madison Reed products. And Errett is confident that Madison Reed will be able to open most of its new locations within the calendar year, at least for curbside pickup.

Errett thinks that after coloring their own hair, more women may stay the course, even when quarantine lifts—or they might reduce salon visits and touch up their hair at home. “What we’re learning is: Give people the right color, and give them much more how-to content,” she says. “The number of user-generated photos we’re getting from people is insane.”


Errett doesn’t see this merely as an exercise in vanity for remote workers who now spend their days on Zoom calls. “Hair does represent confidence,” she says. “Everybody feels better when they look in the mirror and their hair looks great. We’re just spreading a little bit of joy in this horrifically anxious and difficult time.”

“There’s going to be a whole new generation of puzzle enthusiasts”

Hair dye isn’t the only product prized by the quarantined and restless. While stuck at home, many Americans have sought out analog activities to while away the hours. Amid endless Zoom meetings, jigsaw puzzles have emerged as a popular quarantine pastime, leaving puzzle makers scrambling to ship their wares.

When states started issuing shelter-in-place orders, White Mountain Puzzles had to shut down both its factories and a warehouse. Since then, White Mountain has opened two new warehouses—something the company had already been considering—and tried to keep up with orders by shipping puzzles to the new facilities. “That’s really been a godsend,” co-owner Sean Minton says. “Although we’re still backed up by 10-14 days, we’re able to get out thousands more orders than we normally would.” Still, with White Mountain’s factories temporarily closed, manufacturing all but came to a standstill. “Our factories are just opening up,” says Minton. “So inventory has run very low. All of our best sellers are out of stock. The demand doesn’t seem to be letting up.”

“Last year, we sold over two million puzzles. This year, I expect we’re going to do significantly more.”

White Mountain usually sells more to retailers or wholesale partners, many of which are struggling or have had to shut their doors. (Grocery stores and retailers such as Target are an exception.) But over the last two months, White Mountain’s direct-to-consumer business has been so overwhelmed with orders that Minton had to shut down the site temporarily. “The day we opened up our site, we did significantly more sales in 12 hours than we did all of last April,” he says.

In the puzzle business, November and December are the biggest months for sales, as people spend more time at home and are with their families over the holidays. White Mountain’s sales during this lockdown, however, have already outpaced its holiday sales. “Last year, we sold over two million puzzles,” Minton says. “This year, I expect we’re going to do significantly more. But I have no idea how long this will last and what’s going to happen with brick and mortar, which is the majority of our business.”


Minton is optimistic that White Mountain will catch up to demand eventually. But puzzle making is not exactly a speedy business, which means scaling production is more complex than it might seem. Even in nonpandemic times, the production cycle for a White Mountain puzzle is a couple of weeks, Minton says.

Kaylin Marcotte, the founder and CEO of Jiggy, allocates about two months to create a puzzle from beginning to end. Jiggy, which just launched in November, licenses the work of emerging female artists for its puzzles. Its presentation also differs from the usual puzzle: Marcotte opted for a reusable glass jar and upright box, rather than the traditional packaging, and the company includes glue so that each puzzle can function as an art piece once it’s completed. But that leaves Marcotte reliant on even more vendors.

“Our supply chain is all fully operational, but we have seven different vendors,” she says. “So there are multiple components, and it just takes one of them to be delayed.” And then there are the shipping costs: The day we spoke, Marcotte had been quoted a whopping $200,000 to air-freight Jiggy’s next shipment.

Jiggy launched with just six puzzles and is almost fully sold out at the moment. Later this month, Jiggy will restock two best sellers and debut a new collection of six puzzles; in the meantime, it has rolled out a new campaign to help artists who’ve lost income during this time.


“We have this product that there is demand for,” Marcotte says. “Artists don’t have a lot of options right now. So what we were able to get manufactured fairly quickly was blank puzzles: They come already assembled and there’s no image on the front. We’re tapping our grassroots community of artists, distributing these blank puzzles and having them hand draw and hand paint directly to create super one-of-a-kind, limited-edition puzzles.” Jiggy will sell the puzzles and split proceeds with the artists involved, donating part of its own share to relief funds.

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Minton isn’t sure what the future holds, particularly when it comes to brick-and-mortar sales. But puzzles were “on the upswing” even before this pandemic, he points out. “I think there’s going to be a whole new generation of puzzle enthusiasts out there,” he says.

“Baking has become our national pastime”

Even a cursory look at Instagram, where enticing shots of homemade sourdough and banana bread abound, explains why many grocery stores are running low on yeast and flour. “Baking has become our national pastime,” says Karen Colberg, the co-CEO of King Arthur Flour, which was started in 1790 and is said to be the oldest flour company in the country. “I always want to temper these comments because we’re in the midst of a pretty tragic external environment. But baking is comforting. You’re creating sustenance. It’s simple. And there’s a real reward at the end.”

Baking supplies, much like puzzles, usually appeal most to consumers during the holiday season. According to Colberg, the current demand for King Arthur’s products has matched that of holiday seasons past. (Seventy percent of their business is wholesale and the rest direct to consumer.) “In the past month, we have shipped about two to three times our normal volume,” she says. “Our peak season is November and December, and we’re seeing that level of volume in a few weeks in March.”


The most popular of their products have been all things bread-related, whether that means bread mixes, yeast, or flour. Colberg says she’s never seen anything like it. “We invest a lot into content—we really believe our job is to teach people to bake and inspire them to bake,” she says. “But bread and anything yeast-related always has this heightened level of anxiety.” One of the resources King Arthur has long offered baking hobbyists is a “baker’s hotline,” which Colberg says is also seeing a new influx of calls.

In terms of production, there’s no shortage of wheat, Colberg says. The real sticking point is packaging and the bandwidth of mills: Brands such as King Arthur are competing for milling capacity with grocery stores and other manufacturers that produce and sell flour. And as Slate recently reported, increasing yeast production significantly is challenging in part because of the time required to grow yeast, but also due to limited packaging.

To keep up with the demand for five-pound bags of flour—one of the standard sizes sold in grocery stores—King Arthur asked one of its milling partners to switch to producing that size. By June, the company hopes to have most of its products regularly in stock. “We do think we have the commitments with our milling partners to keep us in stock as we look out three to six months,” Colberg says.

Colberg doesn’t see the demand for baking supplies waning anytime soon, even as social distancing restrictions relax. “We anticipate a sustained level of baking,” she says. “In order for us as a country to open up safely, there will be social distancing. I think there will be a lot more work from home. I think we won’t see everybody just flipping a switch and going back to normal, which I think means people will be at home—and continue to bake.”

About the author

Pavithra Mohan is a staff writer for Fast Company.