Shortage of Coronavirus toilet paper: why it’s so hard to find in the midst of a global pandemic


This showed David Cohen something about the nature of humanity: as a cashier at a supermarket in Asheville, NC, he saw people buying absurd amounts of toilet paper, but he also saw people reaching the cashier counter and suddenly decide to consider those with Less.

“Some people have said, ‘Wait, I’m going to put these rolls back on the shelf so someone else can get them,’ ‘said Cohen, who was happy to wait while his customers made a return visit. fast in aisle 14.

He inspired Leslie Klein to poetry: “The store shelves are devoid of necessities / Fear has taken the helm to drive purchases madly / Thus, a paper cushion gives a feeling of security. Klein, an artist – and poet, if she didn’t already know – in West Stockbridge, Mass., Can’t find rolls in her local stores, but she was encouraged to find that some sort of underground market in TP info has developed.

“Friends provide helpful advice,” she said. “Like,” You can find wholesale at this location. “It is something that people really feel they cannot do without. “

This confirmed Ronald Blumer’s view that “people have deep emotional connections to what goes in and out of our bodies.” It sounds highfalutin, but it’s part of your being. ”

Blumer, a Manhattan writer who wrote a book on toilet paper in 2013, managed to find a stash of stuff the other day in a small hardware store all over the place. “People don’t know they are wearing it, so they still have it,” he said. “Or maybe it’s because it’s not the best TP. Single ply, oh!

It has become a kind of obsession. You cannot find it in your local market, which cannot get enough from its distributors, who normally buy from manufacturers, which is not enough from a distance.

The economics and logistics of the problem are somewhat controversial, although there are good and abundant theories as to why your favorite supermarket’s bland assurance that “more is on the way” – Google finds more than a half million hits for that little corporate hype about easing the TP shortage – is misleading.

Fleets of experts, working from home, are already examining the issue from as many perspectives as a university has departments. The Quants – who have studied “the problem of toilet paper” for years, wondering why some people in public restrooms take larger, fuller rolls while others, called “small pickers”, use the larger roll near vacuum – focus on why the supply chain collapsed. Psychologists are curious as to why TP – not exactly essential for sustaining human life – just ranks there with milk and bread in our panic buying behaviors. Social historians wonder why people came to regard toilet paper as vital when it did not even become a household staple until the 1940s.

It’s all pretty cool, but it doesn’t get you any closer to scoring an eight-pack of Charmin Mega Ultra Strong or the elusive brick of Cottonelle Ultra ComfortCare. Or even a roll or two of the inexpensive, transparent and transparent stuff.

The problem, like the virus that caused it, is global. In Australia, a cafe has started to accept TP rolls as payment – a cup of coffee will cost you three rolls. In Hong Kong, scammers brandished a supermarket at gunpoint; all they took was 600 rolls of soft material. A pet store in Dornburg, Germany, last week set up an outdoor entrance to toilet paper in a parking lot when the owner was able to get a massive load.

Nothing seems to be going in the right direction for a product that rarely gets much attention: in Hutchins, Texas, a semi-trailer carrying a full load of toilet paper crashed and burned on the Interstate last week 20. Rolls, mostly charred or reduced to ashes, flared everywhere, closing the road.

The demand is as distressing as the supply is bare. Americans spent $ 1.4 billion on toilet paper in the past four weeks, an increase of 102% from the same period a year earlier, according to data collected by IRI, which tracks retail sales. based on product bar codes. (Prices have been fairly stable over this period.) Only hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and the like have seen much larger sales increases.

But towards the end of March, TP sales fell because the supply was simply not there.

(Only one category of products found in grocery stores saw their sales decline last week compared to a year earlier – energy drinks. Whether people work at home or don’t work, they apparently don’t need to a helping hand to get through the day.)

So why do TP shelves remain large vacuum banks more than a month after many stores have reported that customers are hoarding things?

The main theories are:

2. We actually use a lot more than usual at home because most people take refuge there rather than using the facilities at work, school, restaurants or other public places .

“The third theory is that both are right,” said Doug Baker, vice president of the Food Industry Association, which represents retailers, distributors and producers – the entire chain of businesses, from factory to you. .

This is a three part problem, said Baker. Part one, hoarding: “We have real situations across the country where people buy a whole case,” he said. “The demand has become unprecedented and still is.”

This is something the industry is well aware of: customers regularly wipe the aisle of toilet paper before major snowstorms and hurricanes, and the system can quickly bounce back. But this crisis has put its limits to the test, as the increase in demand is nationwide, has been going on for some time and is unlimited.

Second part, displacement. The same number of people have the same need for toilet paper. But the industry is not designed for a wholesale transfer of work and school to home; home TP is softer, packaged in small rolls and is manufactured and distributed by different companies than the jumbo rolls seen in offices, establishments and public toilets.

Third part, adaptation on the fly. Baker said the industry is changing rapidly. Manufacturers added hours to factories and last week, companies manufacturing industrial products reached an agreement with major food distributors across the country to get their product to grocery stores.

But it’s not as simple as placing large commercial rollers on trucks. Most industrial rolls do not have barcodes on the packaging, so stores have a hard time storing them. They adapt by putting small code stickers, like those stuck on pieces of fruit, on commercial rolls.

Grocers say, as Ira Kress, interim president of Giant Food, says: “There is no shortage of supply, but it takes time for the manufacturing process and our supply chain to catch up the significant peak in demand. “

Giant’s suppliers “ship us far more products than normal, but we also sell many more products than normal,” said Kress. “Please only buy what you need this week rather than refueling. “

The shortages are unlikely to disappear soon.

“We will finally get there,” said Baker. “We need the machines to continue. And we have to reduce sales. It could take several weeks. “

Ideally, this will not lead to too much misconduct on the part of the desperate TP. Black markets in this area have developed in the past. In the 1990s, a manager at the Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium stole $ 34,000 of toilet paper, leaving the base stadium before an Eagles football game. The manager was fired after investigators determined that he had ordered twice as much toilet paper and had sold a large portion of it. The scandal led a city official to deliver this legendary quote to a local reporter: “Man, he really wiped out this stadium. “

Blumer, who has also written books on sweat, pee and navel, said that the modern notion that TP is essential was created by the companies that first sold the Americans using the product in 1940s.

“They had to convince people to use it,” he said. “They had a huge ad campaign that terrified women, with surgeons wearing gloves and scalpels saying,” It is a pity that she did not buy proper toilet paper from her husband. “”

Today’s consumers could resume using pages of newspapers or books like their grandparents did in an emergency, Blumer said. Or they could use bidets, which draw jets of water to clean instead of paper – in fact, toilet paper is mostly water, which is mixed in the manufacturing process with pressure-cooked wood chips . Bidets, common in much of the world, have never made big inroads into the U.S. market, but sales have surged in recent weeks, according to the device manufacturers.

But Blumer admits that paper is unlikely to turn away from paper in a society that, like his lab, has softened with each generation.

Decades of seemingly absurd television commercials describing toilet paper as a cuddly buddy have crept into popular consciousness. So now, in the opening image of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s last song, a plaintive cry of being “sick of being stuck in the house,” a turtle rubs against rolls of toilet paper, which Whack delicately removes it from the guard in the fridge, like priceless hidden gems, a secret protection from the dark forces that threaten us all.


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