Laptops are becoming harder to find in stores and online due to the coronavirus

COVID-19 is driving up demand for laptops, and many people working from home can only find less-desired models or brands.

As more US business employees have been transitioning to working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for new laptop computers has been rising online and in retail stores, causing many models to be sold out and others to have longer shipping times. Other laptop models do remain available for sale, but the choices for business people and consumers appear to be getting tighter through many vendors and stores.

A wide range of online retailers, including Lenovo, Dell, CDW, Office Depot, Staples, and others list laptops for sale, but some models are marked "out of stock" or include messages that there will be shipping or availability delays, based on reviews of web pages by a TechRepublic reporter. For some vendors, out of stock models are removed from site pages automatically, so buyers can't see that they are gone.

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Many laptops are out of stock on Office Depot's website.

Even seeing some laptop models as being listed "in stock" isn't always accurate for some online buyers who configure a machine and then click the "buy" button to check out. After entering their credit card information, buyers can then potentially learn the disappointing news that the machine they thought they had finally landed is actually not in stock and not available for purchase.

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

The laptop buying market certainly appears to be changing rapidly as more US states and cities are almost daily announcing wider restrictions on residents, who are being asked or ordered to stay in their homes and practice social distancing to try to stop the rampant spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Dan Maycock, the CIO of Allan Brothers Fruit, a fruit farm and packing company in Naches, Washington, told TechRepublic that he tried to buy five laptops last week for a small group of employees so they can work from home during the health crisis. The experience was frustrating and barely productive when he called his local IT distributor in his rural part of the state where there are no places to buy devices easily, he said.

"They had a handful of models in stock," he said of the vendor. "Everything else they said they could get for us, but it would be a while."

Maycock also tried websites for Lenovo, Dell, and Microsoft, but had mixed results. He was able to order a high-end Lenovo laptop for a worker whose job required more power, but he wasn't able to find a Surface model from Microsoft that his employees normally use. The Lenovo machine arrived in four days. He didn't find what he needed on the Dell site. The machines for the other workers remain unordered.

"Now, this week, everything is even worse than it was last week in terms of getting something," said Maycock. "Inventories are just down all over the place."

The company is looking at sending the employees who still need a computer for home a mini-desktop from its offices and making due with those, he said. "We're mid-stream trying to solve these problems, and it's getting worse by the day."

Another recent laptop buyer, Joshua Bloomfield, a class-action lawyer in Oakland, California, said he endured huge frustrations trying to order a top-end Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon X-Gen machine for his work-at-home regimen. When he tried to order the laptop, the company's web page said it was out of stock, but when he went back later that day, it allowed him to put the laptop into a sales cart. But by the time he went to add some peripherals and pay for the device a short time later, the site again told him the laptop was out of stock and not available.

Bloomfield tried his order again about 30 minutes later, and this time it went through successfully. "I was still skeptical, though, because I had gotten mixed messages at that point. But then I got a shipping notice from Lenovo, and I have my fingers crossed. I assume it's usually a smoother experience from Lenovo than what I went through. I just feel lucky I was able to get what I wanted."

For another buyer--a writer based outside Boston--buying a laptop for his wife so she could do her work from home took him to a local Staples store over the weekend, where he was told by an employee that despite all the models on display in the store, that he would be able to choose from only two Dell laptop models to take home with him that day. With a choice of a 14" model or a 15" model, he got the smaller mode, said the writer, who asked that his name be withheld.

"I knew that inventories were getting tight in a lot of places," he said. "We needed something quickly, and the local mall had already shut down where Best Buy is located."

A phone call to a Dell sales associate revealed that some laptop models have two-week lead times for shipping, while others won't be available until April. But other machines listed in the Dell Deals page on the company's website can still be ordered immediately for shipment and delivery later this week. The available models include an XPS 13 7390 laptop with a 13.3" display, 8GB RAM, and a 256GB SSD for $949.

The Staples website lists some machines, such as a $1,299 Microsoft Surface 13.5" machine with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD drive, as available, but a note states that delivery time on some items may be delayed "due to extremely high demand."   

A worker in a Staples retail store in Philadelphia said that all the store's laptops were sold out completely. The worker said that some deliveries are having problems getting to buyers because of COVID-19 community travel restrictions and are being returned to Staples, delaying orders.

On CDW's website, some laptops, including Lenovo machines, are listed for sale, but prices are missing and the items are labeled "call for availability."

At Lenovo's website, several laptop models are out of stock, including several configurations of the ThinkPad T480 and its popular ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 machine. Other machines appear to remain available on the site. Some models are limited to only two per buyer, including several T490 machines. Some T490 machines have waits of more than five weeks before shipping, according to the site.

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The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 7 is out of stock on Lenovo's website.

IT distributors are also having hard times meeting the exact needs of some customers.

"We've seen a huge increase in demand," said Ed McNamara, the director of communications and marketing for SHI International. "What we're seeing is that customers have been good at finding alternatives" if they are willing to choose a different model from the one they originally favored, he said. "If they will move into another similar laptop, then we're seeing good success at making matches. A lot of these customers need this stuff right now."

Jim Handy, an IT analyst with research firm Objective Analysis, said the tight laptop supply situation has been going on since COVID-19 appeared in China at the end of 2019. Many laptops and other IT devices are manufactured in China, where factories have been closed and people have been ordered to stay home due to the outbreaks.

"Before the pandemic was declared there were already shortages at various stores because of supply chain issues," said Handy. Many kinds of stores in the US and around the globe have had problems getting shipments from China due to the crisis there, he said. "In late January, US air carriers stopped servicing China. Such moves work against the product flow from China into the US. So while there may be increased demand, my suspicion is that the problem is largely caused by the inability to move products out of China."

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