11 votes

What everyone’s getting wrong about the toilet paper shortage

18 comments

  1. [5]
    skybrian
    Link
    From the article: [...] [...] [...]

    From the article:

    In short, the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets: commercial and consumer. The pandemic has shifted the lion’s share of demand to the latter. People actually do need to buy significantly more toilet paper during the pandemic — not because they’re making more trips to the bathroom, but because they’re making more of them at home. With some 75% of the U.S. population under stay-at-home orders, Americans are no longer using the restrooms at their workplace, in schools, at restaurants, at hotels, or in airports.

    Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock. That’s a huge leap in demand for a product whose supply chain is predicated on the assumption that demand is essentially constant. It’s one that won’t fully subside even when people stop hoarding or panic-buying.

    [...]

    Talk to anyone in the industry, and they’ll tell you the toilet paper made for the commercial market is a fundamentally different product from the toilet paper you buy in the store. It comes in huge rolls, too big to fit on most home dispensers. The paper itself is thinner and more utilitarian. It comes individually wrapped and is shipped on huge pallets, rather than in brightly branded packs of six or 12.

    “Not only is it not the same product, but it often doesn’t come from the same mills,” added Jim Luke, a professor of economics at Lansing Community College, who once worked as head of planning for a wholesale paper distributor. “So for instance, Procter & Gamble [which owns Charmin] is huge in the retail consumer market. But it doesn’t play in the institutional market at all.”

    [...]

    In theory, some of the mills that make commercial toilet paper could try to redirect some of that supply to the consumer market. People desperate for toilet paper probably wouldn’t turn up their noses at it. But the industry can’t just flip a switch. Shifting to retail channels would require new relationships and contracts between suppliers, distributors, and stores; different formats for packaging and shipping; new trucking routes — all for a bulky product with lean profit margins.

    Because toilet paper is high volume but low value, the industry runs on extreme efficiency, with mills built to work at full capacity around the clock even in normal times. That works only because demand is typically so steady. If toilet paper manufacturers spend a bunch of money now to refocus on the retail channel, they’ll face the same problem in reverse once people head back to work again.

    [...]

    While toilet paper is an extreme case, similar dynamics are likely to temporarily disrupt supplies of other goods, too — even if no one’s hoarding or panic-buying. The CEO of a fruit and vegetable supplier told NPR’s Weekend Edition that schools and restaurants are canceling their banana orders, while grocery stores are selling out and want more. The problem is that the bananas he sells to schools and restaurants are “petite” and sold loose in boxes of 150, whereas grocery store bananas are larger and sold in bunches. Beer companies face a similar challenge converting commercial keg sales to retail cans and bottles.

    4 votes
    1. [4]
      joplin
      Link Parent
      Yeah, we haven't been able to get consumer paper delivered. Our local stores require you to come in to get it, and we can't because my spouse is immune-compromised. So we've ordered the industrial...

      In theory, some of the mills that make commercial toilet paper could try to redirect some of that supply to the consumer market. People desperate for toilet paper probably wouldn’t turn up their noses at it.

      Yeah, we haven't been able to get consumer paper delivered. Our local stores require you to come in to get it, and we can't because my spouse is immune-compromised. So we've ordered the industrial stuff. Haven't broken it open yet. I'm not sure how we're going to fit it onto normal-size holders. We might have to re-roll parts of it onto discarded consumer rolls or something. Fun times!

      5 votes
      1. [3]
        entangledamplitude
        Link Parent
        I'm curious... how does one order the industrial stuff? If they're such different products, presumably their distribution mechanisms are also very different.

        I'm curious... how does one order the industrial stuff? If they're such different products, presumably their distribution mechanisms are also very different.

        1. Algernon_Asimov
          Link Parent
          Here in Australia, during the height of the panic-buying, people bought the industrial stuff from warehouse-style hardware shops who supply it to construction workers and tradespeople for their...

          Here in Australia, during the height of the panic-buying, people bought the industrial stuff from warehouse-style hardware shops who supply it to construction workers and tradespeople for their work sites. Maybe you could try something like that?

          2 votes
        2. joplin
          Link Parent
          There are a few ways. I think we may have gotten ours from either Staples or Office Depot. But you can also go to the web sites of the manufacturers and order direct.

          There are a few ways. I think we may have gotten ours from either Staples or Office Depot. But you can also go to the web sites of the manufacturers and order direct.

          1 vote
  2. cwagner
    Link
    I’m thankful to Australia. On the 13th of March we still had 4 rolls of TP left. But I’m watching a cooking stream on Twitch, and they complained about all the TP stupidity and the stores being...

    I’m thankful to Australia. On the 13th of March we still had 4 rolls of TP left. But I’m watching a cooking stream on Twitch, and they complained about all the TP stupidity and the stores being sold out. I thought okay, and bought a 16-roll pack. After that weekend, it hit Germany and TP has usually been sold out here since then. Thanks AUS :D

    4 votes
  3. [6]
    Algernon_Asimov
    Link
    This is bullshit. Plausible, but bullshit. At the time that Australian supermarket shelves were emptied of toilet paper, all the way back on the first weekend in March, there were no "stay at...

    This is bullshit. Plausible, but bullshit.

    At the time that Australian supermarket shelves were emptied of toilet paper, all the way back on the first weekend in March, there were no "stay at home" orders in place. Noone was being asked to work from home. Noone was being told to avoid social gatherings. There was no such thing as "social distancing". Noone was being laid off. That all came later.

    The first event to be cancelled was the Grand Prix, on 13th March. The first restriction on Australians' movements was announced on 21st March.

    There was no increased need for domestic toilet paper at the time it was being sold out, because most people were going about life as normal. The heightened purchasing of toilet paper wasn't a natural result of people spending more time at home, because most people were not yet spending more time at home when they were grabbing all the toilet paper they could carry.

    Next guess?

    3 votes
    1. [4]
      teaearlgraycold
      Link Parent
      Could this not be the explanation solely for why shelves still tend to be empty? It's obvious people were panic-purchasing at the beginning of all this.

      Could this not be the explanation solely for why shelves still tend to be empty? It's obvious people were panic-purchasing at the beginning of all this.

      1 vote
      1. [3]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        It could explain some part of the ongoing shortages. But also remember that there were those of us who were unable to buy any toilet paper during the panic. We still need to get our supplies. And...

        It could explain some part of the ongoing shortages.

        But also remember that there were those of us who were unable to buy any toilet paper during the panic. We still need to get our supplies. And given what we saw, we might want to top up our own supplies. Panic buying tends to breed panic buying.

        It's also worth pointing out that our two largest Australian toilet paper manufacturers have increased their production. Quilton is "working round the clock", and Kimberley-Clark (Kleenex) is also "around the clock; 3 shifts a day, 24/7". That's at least a doubling, if not a tripling, of production.

        Even with the now-actual increased demand for domestic toilet paper, there should be enough supply to meet it. Any shortages must be being caused by something other than simply increased usage.

        2 votes
        1. [2]
          skybrian
          Link Parent
          According to the article, "Because toilet paper is high volume but low value, the industry runs on extreme efficiency, with mills built to work at full capacity around the clock even in normal...

          According to the article, "Because toilet paper is high volume but low value, the industry runs on extreme efficiency, with mills built to work at full capacity around the clock even in normal times."

          I have no further knowledge, but I wonder how often that's true. Maybe it's not like that in Australia?

          1. Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            The two manufacturers I cited were talking about increasing production of domestic toilet paper to meet the extra demand. The aim was to calm down the panic-buying by letting everyone know they...
            3 votes
    2. skybrian
      Link Parent
      There may be other factors, but I still think it's interesting to learn more about how the supply chains work. It's a new source of questions, anyway.

      There may be other factors, but I still think it's interesting to learn more about how the supply chains work. It's a new source of questions, anyway.

  4. krg
    Link
    Tangential: I last bought toilet paper mid-February, before the panic-buying frenzy kicked off. Two six-packs of Charmin Ultra Gentle. Got 'em because Target was offering a $5 gift-card with that...

    Tangential: I last bought toilet paper mid-February, before the panic-buying frenzy kicked off. Two six-packs of Charmin Ultra Gentle. Got 'em because Target was offering a $5 gift-card with that purchase, and I figured toilet paper doesn't go bad and I would need it anyway, so why not? Lucky me, as I live alone and the TP seems to last me. Barely opened the second pack today! Though, I don't think I ever got that gift card...

    3 votes
  5. [4]
    ibis
    Link
    Yeah, as already pointed out - the toilet paper shortages started before the lockdowns / working from home trend did. My little brother works at a grocery store, and we had a conversation about...

    Yeah, as already pointed out - the toilet paper shortages started before the lockdowns / working from home trend did.

    My little brother works at a grocery store, and we had a conversation about this the other day.

    First what happened was the media reported on toilet paper hoarding before there was any real problem or shortage - it must've just been a small localised problem because the shelves where I am (and he worked) were fine.

    But as soon as people thought that other people were hoarding toilet paper - they went out a bought some. According to my brother, most people weren't hoarding it or buying a lot. But everyone was buying at least one pack. It was less a case of crazy hoarders, and more the myth of crazy hoarding causing every single person to buy a little more.

    Maybe the increase in people working from home will cause ongoing issues, but my local store actually tends to have toilet paper stocked now. But it's a new brand I don't recognise, so maybe it did come from a source that usually supplies the commercial sector.

    3 votes
    1. [3]
      skybrian
      Link Parent
      Another explanation I've read that might go along with the others is that relatively little shelf space and inventory is devoted to toilet paper because it takes a lot of space and profit per...

      Another explanation I've read that might go along with the others is that relatively little shelf space and inventory is devoted to toilet paper because it takes a lot of space and profit per square foot is low. So, temporarily running out of stock happens easily.

      3 votes
      1. Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        In most supermarkets I've been in, toilet paper takes up nearly a full side of one aisle. Like, you walk down an aisle, and it's just rolls and rolls of toilet paper on your right or left side for...

        relatively little shelf space and inventory is devoted to toilet paper

        In most supermarkets I've been in, toilet paper takes up nearly a full side of one aisle. Like, you walk down an aisle, and it's just rolls and rolls of toilet paper on your right or left side for about two-thirds of the length of the aisle (the remainder is usually boxes of tissues). It is the product with the most shelf space in the whole supermarket - because it's so bulky. There are fewer packs per square metre compared to other products, but there are a lot more square metres of it to make up for that.

        Remember: toilet paper is a staple item, like milk and bread. It's a necessity. Everybody buys toilet paper, if not every week, then every second week. It has high stock turnover even at the best of times.

        2 votes
      2. ibis
        Link Parent
        Yeah, maybe that’s why it was the first visible sign that there were some hoarders in some locations.

        Yeah, maybe that’s why it was the first visible sign that there were some hoarders in some locations.

        1 vote
  6. vakieh
    Link
    There has been an increase in production far more than 40%. Mills that ran 9-5 Mon-Fri are now more like 6-10 7 days a week if not more, with machines that would normally be idle now running in...

    There has been an increase in production far more than 40%. Mills that ran 9-5 Mon-Fri are now more like 6-10 7 days a week if not more, with machines that would normally be idle now running in parallel with more staff.

    This is not close to the reason for the shortage. Delivery and stocking is a bigger bottleneck than production (though it's up by more than 40% too).

    1 vote