The good people who make toilet paper and get it onto the shelves of our local stores have been telling us for weeks that we have nothing to worry about. You'll have your Charmin, they say. Your Quilted Northern and Angel Soft will be there for you, too. Sit down. Relax.
But anyone who's been shopping lately knows: More than a month into a worldwide pandemic, the paper aisle remains an unmitigated disaster area. Is it ever going to get better?
When consumers of toilet paper first became aware of the coronavirus and the possibly lengthy stay-at-home orders that seemed sure to follow, the reaction generally fell one of two ways.
One: Let's wait and see. See how this thing shakes out. See if all this fuss is for naught.
And two: Batten down the bathroom hatches. We're here for the long haul. Better stock up.
Back in early March in the U.S., it seemed as if the panic buyers and the hoarders clearly had won out. "I think it's a factor, somewhat," David Closs, the John H. McConnell chair emeritus of the department of supply chain management at Michigan State University's Broad College of Business, says. "I haven't seen any toilet paper anywhere since this whole thing started. In any of the stores — Costco, Meijer ... I haven't seen any. It's clear that some people are hoarding.
"It's really perception that there's going to be a shortage. So there might be some of this, 'Oh, we'll buy it, buy it up.' But sooner or later they're going to come to the conclusion that they don't need any more."
That perception of a looming shortage may not be entirely accurate, despite the empty shelves.
"I wouldn't say that there's a shortage ... because there is [paper] fiber still available. There's still trees," says Georgia-Pacific (GP) spokesman Eric Abercrombie. GP is one of the leading makers of TP in the U.S., the company behind Angel Soft toilet tissue and Brawny paper towels. "We're still making it. The raw materials are there. We're working with our third-party vendors for our packaging needs. Those products are there for us to package. It's just a matter of time for it to be made and get out to the stores."
Still, the threat of a shortage leads to something that Georgia-Pacific's Kim Sackey calls FORO: Fear Of Running Out. That explains panic buying and hoarding.
"If you run out of green beans, you can go without green beans. There are a lot of things you can substitute," Sackey told the Chicago Sun-Times. "There really aren't a lot of substitutes for toilet paper."
At-home Toilet Paper Use Is Way Up
Greediness and the fear of being left with an empty roll on the dispenser doesn't completely answer why many shelves are cleaned out, though. Another explanation may lie in a simple supply-and-demand formula.
More people at home + more time at home = greater demand at home.
If you're looking for where all the toilet paper went, forget about people's attics or hall closets. Think instead of all the toilet paper that normally goes to the commercial market — those office buildings, college campuses, Starbucks, and airports that are now either mostly empty or closed. That's the toilet paper that's suddenly going unused.
The bottom line — sorry — may be as simple as this: As a nation, we're almost certainly not going more during these trying times. We're just going more at home. And, right now, we don't have enough at-home product to meet a surging demand. (Anyone who ever has made a stop in a public toilet and peeled off a line of sand-papery one-ply knows the difference between commercial and at-home tissue.)
"On the consumer side, we saw a two-times demand back in mid-March," says Abercrombie, "so we quickly are trying to adjust the operations to meet that demand."
According to Abercrombie, citing statistics from Information Resources Incorporated (IRI), a market research company based in Chicago, that demand is heavy:
An average U.S. household (2.6 people) uses 409 equivalized rolls (that's kind of an average-sized roll among all the mega and double rolls) per year.
Consider a job that takes a third of a day (not counting commutes), or a school day that takes somewhere around that. Add in time eating out and various other time away from home. Now, roll up all that away-from-home time and add it to stay-at-home time. Staying home 24/7, GP figures, would mean around a 40 percent increase in at-home toilet tissue use.
That means, by GP's counting, a two-person household would need about nine double rolls (or five megas) to last two weeks during this pandemic. A four-person: 17 and nine. For two weeks.
That sounds like a lot. If it's accurate, it also sounds like a good argument that actual need, as much as (or maybe more than) greed, is what's keeping grocery store shelves barren.
Georgia-Pacific has 14 facilities that make bath tissue and paper towels (both retail and commercial) in 11 states. Those places employ around 7,500 workers. They're working at about 120 percent capacity, Abercrombie says. And they're not alone.
"We are producing and shipping Charmin at record high levels — we are currently manufacturing and shipping 24/7," Loren Fanroy, a representative for Procter & Gamble, says in an email. "Demand continues to outpace supply, but we are working diligently to get product to our retailers as fast as humanly possible so everyone can continue to Enjoy the Go."
What Else Can Be Done?
Unless you're out of toilet tissue — and maybe especially if you're out — all consumers can do at this point is sit and wait for manufacturers to catch up. The good people that make all that TP are already tugging at the supply chain, increasing and varying production where they can, and looking for efficiencies in packaging and distribution.
Heidi Brock, the president of the American Forest & Paper Association, says in a statement: "This situation is highly dynamic and changing daily, and the industry is working diligently to respond to the spike in demand for tissue products due to coronavirus (COVID-19) purchases. Rest assured, tissue products continue to be produced and shipped — just as they are 52 weeks each year as part of a global market."
Toilet paper manufacturers — Procter & Gamble Co., GP and Kimberly Clark are the main ones in the U.S., accounting for around 80 percent of the market — are clearly not meeting that demand quite yet. The TP supply chain has a lot of moving parts. It's not as simple as switching a machine from scratchy one-ply to cushy two-ply, or from mega commercial role to double at-home size.
There's the packaging, too. The companies will have to print more plastic wrap (and already are) for more home-use packages; you know, the ones with clouds, bears, bunnies and kitties on them. And they'll do fewer of the boxes that go to stores and businesses.
Shipping and storage remain a challenge. Toilet paper, as relatively bulky and as light as it is, never has been an awfully efficient cargo to get from manufacturer to store shelf. You can only get so many rolls on a truck. Nobody likes to use storage space on huge packages of TP, either.
"It's not easy. The relationships, if you're going through the commercial industry, it's a completely different set of distributors than retailers," says MSU's Closs. "There's different flows, who controls it is different."
Still, the people that keep us in the Cottonelle (and Charmin) are working at it. The shelves for the good at-home stuff, as quickly as they're emptied out, are regularly getting filled again.
Eventually, and probably soon, suppliers will catch up to the demand. Distribution will become a little more streamlined. And when it all comes together, the paper aisle will again be a safe place to go. So to speak.
Now That's Interesting
The Chinese are generally credited with the first use of paper for cleaning up after using the toilet. That goes back to the sixth century. Joseph Gayetty invented the first commercially packaged TP (in sheets) in 1857. The perforated roll was patented in 1871, and the roll as we know it (with different sizes, smells and textures) debuted shortly after that.
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