Walk into a store in this time of pandemic, and you can expect shortages on certain items. Pasta, for instance, or flour.
One item that can be unexpectedly hard to find: jigsaw puzzles. Go hunting for the old-fashioned pastime at a big box store such as Target, says Colin Wroblewski ’03, and you might very well come away empty handed. “You look at their shelves, and they are empty,” he says. “Who would have thought puzzles would be a product in such demand?”
Wroblewski is the co-owner and senior vice president for finance and operations at White Mountain Puzzles in Jackson, New Hampshire. During the pandemic, White Mountain Puzzles has experienced a tremendous uptick in sales. Its website is humming, with many of its puzzles out of stock, and its phone lines are jammed. Customers are ordering whatever puzzles the company has, even out-of-season Christmas puzzles. “It’s like Black Friday every day,” Wroblewski says.
Major retailers, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Hobby Lobby, also are clamoring for the company’s offerings. “The purchase orders—you can’t even fathom,” says Wroblewski.
Turns out that the simple, time-passing pleasure of putting one piece together with another, and doing that again and again until a picture becomes whole and a puzzle is finished, can be a soothing activity in these days of great uncertainty. “Puzzles do provide relaxation,” says Wroblewski. “They can provide relief from the everyday anxiety and stress of the pandemic.”
Wroblewski grew up in New Hampshire surrounded by puzzles. Beginning in 1978 as a poster company before transitioning its business to sell puzzles, White Mountain Puzzles was co-founded by Wroblewski’s parents, Ted and Sharon, and another couple, Cronan and Penny Minton.
Wroblewski entered the family business in 2011. At the time, he had been working as a tax accountant with Dunkin’ Brands. He enjoyed his job, and he enjoyed living in the Boston area. But, then the elders of White Mountain Puzzles were looking to step away from the business, and Wroblewski saw an opportunity.
Feeling that his Babson degree prepared him well to run a company, and looking forward to returning to the beautiful outdoors of his native state, Wroblewski took over White Mountain with the Mintons’ son, Sean, who handles the company’s marketing and e-commerce, as well as the image selection for the puzzles.
Nowadays, Wroblewski lives in the small town of Bartlett, with his wife and two children in the same house in which he was raised. And, yes, he does put together a puzzle from time to time. “It does provide me with clarity and allows me to focus,” he says.
Even before the pandemic, many others had discovered these Zen-like qualities of puzzle solving. In the last four to five years, sales at White Mountain have been growing. “I think a lot of it is people wanting to unplug,” says Wroblewski. “You can only stare at your iPad or phone for so long.”
The company has been selling about 2 million puzzles annually. For a time, the coronavirus shut down the company’s two factories, in Tipton, Indiana, and Holyoke, Massachusetts, but White Mountain had enough inventory to weather the storm. This year, sales promise to be even higher.
White Mountain offers 350 types of jigsaw puzzles. A thousand pieces are in a typical puzzle, and many are collages, of beer bottle caps, cereal boxes, candy wrappers, road signs, and a wide range of other subjects. “A lot of our puzzles have a nostalgic feel,” says Wroblewski. “I think people relate to that. It brings them down memory lane.”
“Who would have thought puzzles would be a product in such demand?”
Colin Wroblewski ’03
The company retires 70 puzzles every year and introduces a like number to replace them. For help in choosing new puzzles, it seeks the input of thousands of customers who make up a “puzzle panel,” which will rate potential offerings. “Folks are loyal to our brand,” says Wroblewski. “We have hard-core puzzlers.”
In a time when so many businesses are struggling, Wroblewski is grateful for the support White Mountain has received. “I am humbled by it,” he says. “We have an awesome team of employees, and we feel very fortunate.”