Off Brand

One Company’s Pandemic Shortage Is Another’s Golden Opportunity

How companies like Canon are cashing in on the shortage boom

Rob Walker
Published in
4 min readNov 9, 2020


A flower grows from the lens of a Canon camera.
Illustration: Guillem Casasus

Just a few weeks into the pandemic lockdowns, as toilet paper and Clorox wipes were becoming a rarified luxury, another shortage quietly emerged: webcams. Lots of people, suddenly thrust into the now-familiar world of constant Zoom calls, remote classrooms, and videoconferences, were scrambling to buy what had previously been a sleepy product, and there weren’t enough webcams to go around.

Canon, the camera-maker, spotted this shortage early — and saw an unexpected opportunity.

To be clear, Canon did not make webcams, and has no plans to start. But within three weeks its engineering and software teams developed free software that would make it easy for Canon owners to convert their cameras into webcams. “A lot of customers didn’t know it would be feasible to do this,” says Rita Dubey, a senior director of customer experience marketing and strategy at the 83-year-old company. It was “a completely different use case.” For the consumer — and for Canon.

As the pandemic has worn on, the pivots and innovations have become more imaginative, rarified, and surprising.

That’s one small example of something that’s long been true, but that the pandemic has reminded us: scarcity can inspire innovation.

Ever since the severity of the pandemic became undeniably clear back in March, the U.S. has experienced waves of product shortages unlike any in recent memory. Some got a lot of attention — but others were more obscure, or took more time to sink in: things like kettlebells, freezers, and inflatable pools. In some cases, scarcity lingers: Clorox is still struggling to keep its wipes on shelves. In some others — an early pandemic shortage of meat, for instance — the supply-and-demand equilibrium has righted itself (though with consumers reportedly stocking up again in the face of a new winter case-count peak, scarcity could make a comeback).