What does toilet paper have to do with a global pandemic?
Yet millions of people have panicked about their household supplies. Store shelves have been emptied. Amazon is often out of stock. And social media is full of jokes and pleas for a roll or two.
The good news: things are calming, at least in the United States, after a spate of purchases in mid-March. But it’s not yet clear when – if ever – buying habits will return to normal.
Here’s everything you always wanted to know about toilet paper during a pandemic:
WHY IS TOILET PAPER DISTRIBUTED?
One reason is that people are piling up. Some were stockpiling last month before city and state foreclosure orders. This is a common reaction in times of crisis, when consumers feel the need for control and security, said David Garfield, world leader in consumer product practice at AlixPartners, a consulting company.
NCSolutions, a data and consulting company, said online and store sales of toilet paper in the U.S. rose 51% between February 24 and March 10, as buyers began to worry of the growing number of virus cases. But sales exploded by 845% on March 11 and 12, as states announced closings.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER REASONS FOR SHORTAGES?
The toilet paper flows from stationery stores to retail stores through a tight and efficient supply chain. Toilet paper is bulky and unprofitable, so retailers don’t have a lot of stock on hand; they just receive frequent mailings and restock their shelves.
“You never noticed it because it is so well managed,” said Jim Luke, professor of economics at Lansing Community College in Michigan, who was previously a strategist for a toilet tissue distribution company.
The amount of toilet paper that Americans use on average has not changed; it’s still about 141 rolls per year (versus 134 rolls in Germany and only 49 rolls in China, says AlixParters). But even small changes in buying habits can disrupt everything.
With a regional disruption like a hurricane, stores can redirect certain stocks to the affected area. But a global pandemic does not leave much room for maneuver.
CANNOT COMPANIES MAKE MORE TOILET PAPER?
The three major American toilet tissue companies – Georgia-Pacific LLC, Proctor & Gamble Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. – were already operating their toilet paper factories 24 hours a day before the arrival of the new coronavirus. This is the only way for them to make a profit on a product with such a low margin.
Companies are trying to increase production by making fewer varieties of toilet paper. They are also trying to deliver the product faster to stores. Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific is working with packaging suppliers to obtain more materials and maximize the number of deliveries it can ship from its facilities.
Full coverage: Life during a pandemic
CAN SUPPLIES BE FORWARDED TO HOUSEHOLDS INSTEAD OF COMPANIES THAT ARE NOW CLOSED?
No. Commercial toilet paper uses a different type of pulp and is produced on different machines. Many institutional rolls are intentionally larger, so cleaning staff don’t have to fill them as often and people don’t steal them, said Luke. Plusher toilet paper for home use also has different packaging requirements, said Garfield.
Before the coronavirus crisis, about half of US toilet paper sales were commercial, while the other half was for homes, said Garfield. It changes; AlixPartners estimates that demand from American households is up 40% with the closure of offices and schools.
But Georgia-Pacific said commercial demand has not yet fallen. He has seen an increase in orders from hospitals and other essential businesses that are still operating.
ARE SUPPLIES IN GROCERIES AND OTHER RETAILERS IMPROVING?
Demand has eased somewhat since mid-March, which should make it easier to find toilet paper. NCSolutions said sales are down 62% right now from the “extreme buying period” of March 11-24. But they are still 6% higher than they were before the new coronavirus reached the United States.
Kroger, the country’s largest grocery chain, said most of its stores now receive trucks of paper products every day or two. Kroger and other retailers have also set limits on the amount of toilet paper people can buy at the same time.
WHEN WILL THINGS RETURN TO NORMAL?
Nobody knows. On the one hand, the new coronavirus could permanently increase the demand for household toilet paper.
“Will the workforce return to work as before? If people work from home, it could take much longer, ”said Linda Dupree, CEO of NCSolutions.
Rising toilet paper prices – as was done in 1973 during the oil embargo – could limit hoarding, said Garfield. But that would make it more difficult for some consumers.
ARE THERE WAYS TO REDUCE THE USE OF TOILET PAPER?
In the US, bidet searches hit a record high in March, according to Google Trends. Tushy, which makes a $ 100 bidet accessory for the toilet, said sales increased in mid-March, reaching $ 1 million in one day. Sales are still 10 times ahead of schedule, said Tushy.