Where’s the boba? How increased online shopping led to a national shortage

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The COVID-19 pandemic has affected a lot of industries from toilet paper to movie theaters. The pandemic’s latest victim is the chewy tapioca pearls known as boba.

Boba is used for bubble tea, which originated in Taiwan where the pearls are typically shipped from. But now, shipping delays due to increased demand for items from Asia have led to a nationwide boba shortage that could last into the summer.

“It’s like my morning coffee,” said Kobee Lara, a devout boba tea lover. “I usually get Vietnamese coffee with boba in it, just because I like the chewiness of it. But, you know, it’s definitely something that some people have their coffee lovers. Some people have their tea lovers. I am one of the boba lovers. So it’s something that really just kind of kick jump starts my day.”

Bubble tea shops in Austin are feeling the effects of the shortage. Charlie Oh, owner of 101 by Tea Haus, said the shortage came at an unfortunate time. Trying to recover from lost business due to the pandemic, the tea shop had just begun a 10-week boba tea promotion when they heard about the shortage.

“We started hearing about the shortage of boba a couple weeks back, so that’s when we started working with our supplier and other suppliers to try and get our hands on as much boba as possible,” Oh said.

Despite the challenges, 101 by Tea Haus continues to serve bubble tea, mostly by online order now.

“As we and other boba shops experience the shortage, people will realize it’s not just a national issue, it’s an international issue,” Oh said. “I think people will be more receptive to other creations that we come up with to replace boba.”

The shortage is a result of people staying home during the pandemic. Raymond Robertson, Ph.D., is the director of the Mosbacher Institute for Trade, Economics, & Public Policy at the Bush School at Texas A&M University. Robertson explained how an increase in online shopping resulted in an overly high demand for products from Asia. Shipping docks became overloaded.

“Part of the problem that’s been happening with the imports, especially from Taiwan, was a surge of demand,” Robertson said. “The problem is there just isn’t enough people to unload all the ships, so it’s created all kinds of supply disruptions.”

Boba is not the only product experiencing a shortage. Robertson said another shortage is computer chips used in mechanical devices such as cars.

“We believe that the market is going to be able to resolve this but just going to take some time because we have to keep reallocating,” Robertson said. “The problem is that every time we have a disruption in one market that ripples out and affects all kinds of other markets.”

One way the market will work out the problem is with increased shipping costs.

In the meantime, boba lovers may have to settle for other drinks.

“I hope they can figure it out, because I’m sure I’m not the only boba lover in the world, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people rely on it to make their day,” Lara said.

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