Its been well over a month since the total solar eclipse took place in the United States and for a small science store the overwhelming experience for us was the demand (and inability to supply) eclipse shades for viewing the event. We bought hundreds of eclipse shades, but underestimated the last minute demand for them.
So what happened? Well, mostly it was folks waiting until the last minute (sometimes later than the last minute) to purchase shades, combined with some unscrupulous dealers selling eclipse shades that were not up to acceptable standards.
Early Warnings of Frauds
As early as February of 2017 there were warnings about substandard eclipse glasses being sold on the market. This wasn’t a major issue at the time but some of the glasses were showing up with fake . certification warnings and using the logos of legitimate eclipse shade sellers such as Rainbow Symphony and American Paper Optics. While this was a problem, it was purely a safety problem and was not yet a logistics issue.
Early Orders Sell Out
Nobody wanted to buy hudnreds of eclipse shades montsh and months before the eclipse actually happened so we (and many others) placed their orders 3 months before the eclipse happened. Sales were decent but not spectacular. Nonetheless we did run out of the shades about a month before the eclipse and ordered more, expecting a decent increase in demand but not a floodgate.
The next batch was selling handily and we tried to order more before they ran out and were told by our supplier (American Paper Optics) that they would be unable to fill any more orders as they had over 18,000 orders in need of filling. Most of these were custom orders that needed printing, etc. They were overwhelmed.
Still we had an OK supply of Eclipse Shades in the store. We figured we would run out before the eclipse but that people would understand and find other sources.
Amazon Drops the Ball
A little over a week before the Eclipse, Amazon suddenly refunded anyone who purchased eclipse shades, solar filters, and other solar viewing items. They advised people not to use those shades as they were not approved for solar viewing. Sadly some vendors selling decent eclipse shades were caught up in this firestorm but more importantly thousands of customers suddenly found out that their shades were defective and to use them might be dangerous.
So now in addition to the usual last-minute customers there would also be a legion of customers who did plan ahead but found their equipment compromised and in need of replacement. On August 12th we sold the last of our Eclipse Shades, and the flood gates for requests started to open. BY the 14th we had noticed we were getting quite a few calls, on the 15th we got even more calls. By the 16th we decided to start keeping track. Here was our final tally:
Most of these were phone calls, but a number of them were people coming to the store itself. The phone simply would not stop ringing and it got to the point where we wanted to answer the phone “Thank you for calling Spectrum Scientifics, we are out of eclipse shades!” to save time. But hat seemed a little rude.
Naturally, when we explained that we were out of eclipse shades many folks asked where they could get them. Here is the timline of what we advised:
8/16: Suggested that they try the stores at the Franklin Instute Science Museum.
8.17 : Franklin Institute is apparently out of eclipse shades. Rumors are that several 7-11 stores have them as an impulse item. Media notices the shortage and reports the troubles finding them.
8/18 : Customers tell us they tried 7-11 and they are all out of them, tales are told of travelling for hours to get to a 7-11 that might have them
We now advised customers to attend events where libraries, local television stations and other locations would be handing out the glasses. These events are overwhelmed and run out fairly quickly.
8/19: Over 100 inquiries in one day. We are advising that customers use projection systemsfor viewing. Some customers ask if we are selling such items (we are not as they are constructed out of cereal boxes).
8/20: Inquiries decline slightly as people read in the media that there are no eclipse shades to be had. It is the day before the eclipse. Still, over 70 people inquire about them.
8/21: Eclipse day! Calls are still coming in as we set up our telescope to show a projection of the eclipse:
Many people on the street gather around to watch the projection. Several try the ‘smartphone shooting over the shoulder technique’, others come by with carboard projection systems they have built themseleves. Cars even slow down on Main St to look at the eclipse projection. Thankfully no traffic incidents happen as a result of this…
And we continued to get calls about Eclipse shades!
Until the local peak had passed there were people calling about buying eclipse shades. To be fair they did understand that they were the very definition of ‘last minute’ but there wasn’t much we could tell them at that point. During our store event we had a couple of sample pairs that we passed around for people to use. It turns out a single pair could could be shared among a dozen people without much incident.
On April 8th, 2024 (an unusually short time) there will be another total eclipse in the USA and this time, if we are still around, we hope not to get caught off guard. Will the wisdom of last minute shoppers change? (Our experience with holiday shoppers says ‘no’), will people try to re-use Eclipse Shades from 2017? (Doutbless some will, but they should not as they really should not be used after a year or two), and we cannot expect Amazon to mess up like they did in 2017.
We are looking forward to it.