Why They’re Still Out of Toilet Paper
It's not greedy hoarders after all.
OneZero’s Will Oremus explains “What Everyone’s Getting Wrong About the Toilet Paper Shortage.” It turns out that it’s not about hoarding.
It has nothing to do with psychology and everything to do with supply chains. It helps to explain why stores are still having trouble keeping it in stock, weeks after they started limiting how many a customer could purchase.
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.
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.
That makes a lot of sense. And, unfortunately, it’s not a problem likely to be solved any time soon.
So why can’t we just send that toilet paper to Safeway or CVS? That’s where supply chains and distribution channels come in.
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.”
Georgia-Pacific, which sells to both markets, told me its commercial products also use more recycled fiber, while the retail sheets for its consumer brands Angel Soft and Quilted Northern are typically 100% virgin fiber. Eric Abercrombie, a spokesman for the company, said it has seen demand rise on the retail side, while it expects a decline in the “away-from-home activity” that drives its business-to-business sales.
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.
Which means the hoarders we were all making fun of were way smarter than the rest of us.
That’s a good point and one I hadn’t considered. Thanks.
I suspect there is more than one factor behind the shortages: the one mentioned in this post, hoarders, profiteers, and larger supply chain problems. Toilet paper isn’t just paper. It has all sorts of other things added to it—scents, lotions, things to make it soft, bleaching agents. I would bet that a lot of those additives come from China and with the Chinese suppliers at least temporarily offline it has slowed production.
@Dave Schuler: Yes, single-cause explanations are almost always inadequate. I tend to have a large stock of toilet paper, paper towels, and the like on hand anyway since we have a large family and adequate storage but I’m starting to run low. Costco has been slap out of both the last couple of times I’ve gone but I haven’t been back in two weeks. The grocery store aisles were baren of paper products when I went yesterday.
That may have been the source of the problem, but in the days before retailers began limiting sales, there was significant panic buying. Tuesday AM, my wife went to the local market during senior hours and all paper products were gone, as well as hand and dish soap. There maybe a supply chain issue, but it is being compounded by people picking up the products whether they have a near term need or not.
There was a great cartoon that my wife showed me a week or so ago. Two dinosaurs are standing together. One points to the sky and says “Look! A meteor—we’re all going to die!” and the other responds “Quick! Let’s go and buy toilet paper.”
The thing that bothers me the most about this topic is that TP has many substitutes that work just fine.
Bidets, cloth, other paper products placed in the garbage, etc. would all work just fine for the task at hand.
I can understand shortages of things for which there are few substitutes, but TP is just odd.
I’m just laughing because none of you knows how to use the three seashells.
In response to these kind of stories I used to just post a link to the wonderful aftermarket home bidet attachment I have, but I don’t do that anymore because it’s now sold out. 😀
@Sleeping Dog :
Believe it or not, this is a tricky variable – what constitutes “need”? The person you see as stockpiling might be taking delivery for others who can’t get it themselves. Others have a lot of butts to consider when they go shopping.
I stocked up my entire extended family (and there’s a lot of us!) just as this whole thing started with 30 packs and 24 rolls of paper towels each. That was almost a month ago – they should all be good, right? Nope – one aunt has a kidney condition and burned through hers by week two, several other with diabetes getting low. I’ve had to go out 6 TIMES in the last 4 weeks at 5AM to get toilet paper for someone who should be all stocked up. Since those are senior hours (and I am decidedly not), at least one senior needs to get up and get in the store with me so we might as well split the cart and get one limited item each before hitting up the next store to do the same thing. Thus I am “hoarding” but it’s not going to me – I’m giving it to elderly people, those with medical needs who shouldn’t risk going out and if I found enough, nurses and other essential workers on my street who can’t do a 5AM run. My boss’ father was one of the first confirmed cases in our area so she’s not been able to go out; got her a 24pk and left it on the porch. Aunt who works on a COVID-19 floor and lives in a neighborhood with 3+ positive cases? 2 30-pk and as much chicken as I could find.
I know there’s people that have 40+ rolls in their basement that will be good till Dec. I am not one of them. In fact, of all the TP I’ve purchased over the last month, I got to keep *zero*. However, if you were to look at my purchases I’d look like a terrible person taking needed supplies away from people who have none. I’d rather have people hate on me for being “that person” and know I’m reducing infection vectors (keeping more people home by sending out only one shopper).
@James Joyner :
When are you going? Just in time deliveries mean grocery stores get stock the day before they expect to be busy ie go early on Thurs because the delivery was for Friday and the weekend. Best bets for regularly scheduled delivery times are Tues and Thurs since they are the off-days. Also, depending on your age, you might qualify for “senior hours” if your stores have them.
You have to get up at ungodly hours to get there to wait in line for more hours but you tend to get what you need. Think of it like Black Friday shopping: you get there EARLY to get in line and you might have a chance. Show up 5 min before the door opens or god forbid, after the stated start time and you are SOL. You can always go back to sleep – better to get there and wait then risk not being the first few in line.
Toilet paper is a highly visible emblem of how we’re handling things in general. Testing for this disease, PPE gear, ICU beds, supplies of Plaquenil, respirators, etc, etc. We have a problem in delivery of stuff. We need to rethink the cultural milieu that makes us so vulnerable.
@Slugger: I just read in my local newspaper that wearing masks in public is going to be recommended for all. Where do I get my mask? Does a homemade McGuyvered mask suffice?
Common tissues are a good alternative, as are paper towels.
Why, yes. Yes, I was.
@Kathy: But if you have a septic system, throw them in the trash after use, not the toilet.
I remember when we used to laugh about these types of stories from the Soviet Union and how inefficient their system was.
Now here we are.
If you want the honest answer: No it won’t protect you completely, but it’s better than nothing as it may make people at least think about social distancing.
That is much the same thing that Dr. Deborah Birx said at the news conference. Don’t turn it into a false sense of protection.
This has some good info and graphics: https://smartairfilters.com/en/blog/coronavirus-pollution-masks-n95-surgical-mask/
A lot of the olds in the line with me said the same thing. I reminded them that this isn’t as rare as they think – every time there’s a natural disaster or crisis, grocery stores lines and empty shelves happen very quickly. Not to mention things like the oil crisis in the 70’s.
I think part of the problem is that people are so used to getting what they want, when they want that the idea of keeping a supply at home (aka stockpile) seems crazy to some. In a world of next-day delivery, why have a 30-days supply of anything in house when you can just do a Target run on the way home from work? Stores had the same mentality – reduce inventory in-store and depend on just in time delivery to save on costs. It’s not that it’s inefficient – it relies very heavily on the concept that supply chains are consistently stable. We pretend our largesse is normal and the proper state of the world but really it’s a house of cards that comes tumbling down quite often. It’s just never been on a national scale for so long before in our lifetime.
Katherine and I have been in lockdown for just over four weeks – a full two weeks before our excellent governor, Newsom, ordered it. We thought it was an obvious move. And we have yet to tap our carton of TP or our carton of PT, not to mention Kleenex and baby wipes. And our month’s worth of coffee, booze and weed.
In fact aside from concern for our kids our big problem is that we’re gaining weight because while it’s sometimes hard to find healthy food, it’s pretty easy to get baked goods and chocolate. The inequality is ridiculous. There are people sleeping under freeway overpasses within a mile of where I sit with my mountains of Harry and David baked goods. We’ve budgeted an amount for charity during the pandemic, we’re wildly overtipping delivery people and continuing to pay the various services we can’t use – dog walker, cleaner. But I used to be a guy sleeping under an overpass, I don’t have the emotional distance from sleeping rough and being destitute that many enjoy. I can’t bullshit myself that this is anything but luck.
There’s a doctor here in LA still going around to the tent cities treating homeless. We sent her some money, and I’m sure she appreciates it, but on the scale of virtue she’s sitting at around a nine point five, and we are down in the threes. No amount of check-writing equals poking your head into the tent of a sick, meth-addicted guy under a bridge. There are some very brave, very good people out there in the world taking risks, doing what they see as their duty, while I sit here getting fat on gourmet sweets.
I buy TP at Costco about twice a year, in big bags about the size of a mattress. It doesn’t spoil and I’ve a little storage room in the parking garage of the apartment building.
I am considering reducing trips to the supermarket to twice a month rather than once a week. I’ve been reading up, and it turns out you can freeze things like bananas and onions. All other things I usually get have longer shelf lives.
What I’ll begin to stockpile when it becomes available next is hand sanitizer. Not huge amounts, but about ten or twelve liters. That’s far more than enough for months if/when it comes to that.
@KM: There’s a joke going around about a group of elderly people shopping who are upset to discover that the shelves that normally hold toilet paper, soap, and hand sanitizer are completely bare. So when a young man walks by with a cart full of these things, they block him in and start yelling at him about his selfishness. After a while, the young man replies in frustration, “Look, if you don’t let me by, I’ll never be able to restock these shelves!”
Just came back from a booze and beer run. In Cow Hampshire this requires two stops, since the socialistic state liquor store doesn’t carry beer. Since the wife mentioned we’ll be out of hand soap in a week or so, I figured I’d look and see if there were any. Nada, not a bar, dispenser or cleaning wipes. A look at the paper product shelves, 30 yards of bare shelves and this store has been limiting purchases of those products for ~2 weeks.
Now the liquor store (god bless socialism) was packed both with shoppers and product. The only thing I noticed they were low on were the door buster special items.
Back in the day, we used to use lack of available to purchase toilet paper in Soviet era Russia and it’s colonies as a measure of how we were better than them.
Yay free-market capitalism, boo central planning.
We will be undone by hubris.
One problem with this explanation.
While I’m on furlough, I’ve been helping out at the grocery store where I used to work. They got a full load of paper products on Monday–the shelves were full. On Tuesday the shelves were bare.
Supply was not the issue.
Yep. We are hoist on our own pootard.
This is why I like this site; I now fully understand the toilet paper dilemma; I never thought of the split in industry and increased home usage (I spent many years in the Army and learned to always use the home bathroom when possible for sit downs). And I no longer claim to support libertarians after some of the past few days’ discussions by various folks. Best wishes to all and keep the comments coming…quarantining with twin 10 year olds…can be for long days. We are healthy; can’t ask for more right now.
Where I live folks still remember the 1971 dock strike that caused our state (Hawaii) to run out of toilet paper. It was before my time, but its completely routine for us to stock up on tp, rice, and water whenever an emergency appears: hurricane, tsunami, potential shipping disruption, pandemic. Overall the stores here are doing a good job managing the supplies they do get it, have good senior shopping policies. But its far from perfect, and if shipping does get impacted, sending us food and medicine will surely be prioritized over tp.
@Kathy: You can freeze bananas and onions but they’re only good for cooking afterwards.
ETA probably obvious to you but on the off chance.
@Sleeping Dog: In a pinch, Everclear will work as hand sanitizer.
If you lived near the ocean.
My grandma lived on the farm during the depression. She told us in the good years there was always a supply of corn cobs in the outhouse.
The management of my high-rise apartment building would like you to know that paper towels are NOT a good alternative, and will lead to Bad Things For All.
Almost the perfect bon mot, but the last vowel isn’t quite right…
@DrDaveT: If you are speaking of the last word, is that not a misspelled noun?
State liquor laws are baffling.
Utah, Kentucky, Minnesota. It’s so irrational. Blue laws and dry counties and only 3.2% on Sundays and / or in convenience stores.
Way back when we used to buy a keg of 3.2 beer for after midnight to guard against things going very wrong.
One idiot, I am looking at you Dave, decided that Colt 45 would be fun. That went about as well as you could expect. When both the FD and the PD show up simultaneously, things have gone seriously awry.
There used to be a 3.2 bar on Snelling between Hamline and University called… I can’t recall. Somebody’s nickname; like Snookies, not that but close to that.
No spirits. No bottles. 3.2% beer from the tap only. Pickled eggs, pickled pigs feet, old school video game cabinets. Shuffle bowling. Right next door to a blatantly tug job “massage” parlor.
The clientele was fascinating. You can get drunk on 3.2 but it is solid work. You have to drink a *lot* of 3.2 beer to get blitzed and fast because your body burns it off at a steady pace.
Old guys in hats socializing during the day so the can oblivion themselves at night with cheap hard liquor when no one sees. Old women in too much make-up.
It was a scene. There were rules. You could josh, but not too hard. It was a public space for private people with an open secret.
Everyone there was on a path that would not end well. And they knew it.
Homemade masks can actually work better than standard surgical masks (but less well than the N95). The cheapest, easiest, most replaceable version I’ve seen is made with a shop towel, a paper clip, two rubber bands, and six staples. Believe it or not, it is better than most non N95 masks you can buy.
If you’re more fancy 180+ thread count quilters cotton or high quality felt.
The shop towel route seems best, as you have to wash and dry the cloth masks after use for them to remain effective and one roll of shop towels will make you 90 disposable masks.
and it has the advantage you can drink it when other stocks get low 😉
University Ave in St Paul, was like Cedar Ave in Minneapolis, at one time there was a 3.2 joint every 3 or 4 blocks. Except for Matt Bristol’s on Cedar and 34th(?), they’re all gone. Matt’s now has a full liquor license. My understanding is that all that is left of 3.2 is Sunday sales and convenience and grocery stores and bar take out. And that is on its way out since there are only a couple of breweries willing to produce it.
Ever go to Stand Up Frank’s?
Stand Up Frank’s. Hell yes!
They had a motto – a double in every drink or somesuch.
I used to live downtown in the high rise next to the post office.
Four young idiots crammed into a 2 bedroom. My roomie had a sleep-over gf, so I mostly crashed in the closet down the hall. (The joke writes itself, but I’m a het.)
Every bar within walking distance was visited.
SUF was a stretch. It was a long walk, but you never want to drive home from Stand Up Frank’s.
Now that we are now more cocktail aware, a too strong drink is a shitty drink unless you desire oblivion.
Sleeping Dog, you awoke long ago fond memories. I thank you.
Googled. Stand Up Frank’s is gone. New ownership.
It was drunkies and college idiot kids looking for cheap booze.
Apropos of today.
When I lived downtown, my building was on the the skyway.
My job was a half mile away on the skyway.
You can get to a huge number of bars and restaurants on the skyway. There was a Tom Thumb and a liquor store on the first floor of my building.
One time in late January, I realized I hadn’t actually been outdoors in like three weeks.
It’s like living in a very large, geographically distributed mall.
Also, The Replacements’ Skyway is perhaps the best of all possible songs.
@de stijl: I lived in Arlington TX in 1970. Everybody drank Coors because it was trendy or Pearl because it was Texas. My northern friends and I drank Bohemia or Modelo, which were super cheap. A friend went home to Minneapolis for a holiday and came back with a couple cases of Grain Belt Strong. I don’t recall the numbers, but it was a couple points higher alcohol than Coors, or regular Coors, but it had a regular GB label with “strong” rubber stamped in small letters. We passed them out at a couple pool parties. Had Texans draped on the furniture and nodding off. That was still the era of the four martini lunch. Now I should probably feel guilty about it.
In other news, I bought a pack of TP this morning. I think someone upthread said stores restock Thursday, they were still restocking all over the store. Didn’t look like enough to last the day, but apparently it’s starting to trickle in. Enough so I could choose Scotts instead of the Koch owned Northern.
Minneapolis skyway? I lived in two different apartment buildings on the skyway. I could walk in a t-shirt all over town with outside temperatures of -20. Loved it.
God dammit. You’re right.
There is a greatly high likelihood that I was a drone in a black or gray suit either trudging to or from my job in the skyway.
That was a strange period on my life.
You have to learn how to have appropriate fun and still be at work and on the ball at 8AM.
I was often at work but not fully on the ball. Sorry, old bosses!
It is the first instance of true real consequence we face. Fuck up bad, and you’re fired.
It was corrective.
If you delve into that arena, you adapt or you leave. How corporatism has infected our lives and outlook is astonishing.
Shutting yourself down for 8 or 10 hours at time is a requisite. This is not what I wanted.
I eventually found a way.
In the late 70’s and through the 80’s, I lived in Phillips neighborhood and hung out on the West Bank. Drank mostly at Palmers (still there) and the 400 Bar (now a child care center). Went in to the 400 with a friend one afternoon and Jake Leinenkugel was buying beer for all, the West Bank being Leinies single largest market. Another afternoon, looked over in the corner and there was Dylan with Tony Glover. No one bothered them, though Tony was a regular. Lazy Bill Lucas on piano on Friday nights and when Bill passed, Willie Murphy. Willie is now gone as well.
Actually my impression is that frozen bananas can be thawed and eaten.
I guess I’ll find out.
Nye’s was just across the river. Easy walk. 16, 18 minutes.
From downtown to full on Nord East is really not that far at all. It’s just across the river.
If I was not going to see someone play, I would often end up at Nye’s.
The Polka room just overwhelms when the world’s most dangerous band is performing. Polish beer is pretty great.
Lu in the piano lounge rocked so effing hard.
Pirogies. Surf and turf. Shrimp cocktail.
My best friend had his wedding reception there. Until that day I never knew they had a basement. It is as awesome as you imagine.
Nye’s informed my young adulthood.
@Kathy: It may depend on what condition you freeze in them and how picky you are about texture and such. The people that I know who freeze bananas do it with overripe ones that they’re not ready to make banana bread out of. I don’t like frozen bananas, so I don’t do it. I do know that chocolate dipped frozen bananas can be eaten, but people don’t eat them thawed. 🙂
@Kathy: I have found that frozen bananas, once thawed, regardless of ripeness at freezing, are mush.
I’m picky about my bananas, even when it’s going into banana bread. I prefer the tartness of green bananas in my bread, so I throw them into the freezer right away, and it gives the bread a little more pizazz. But those frozen green bananas are still not the same animal as green bananas before freezing, they are mush.
Off on a tangent….there used to be a greenhouse here with a crazy hippie that ran it. He ran into a good deal at some farmer’s market and bought 6 banana trees, which he planted in his greenhouse. I used to go get big bundles of them, but if you are used to store-bought bananas, be prepared for diabetic shock when you try bananas right off the tree like that! BEST. BANANA. BREAD. EVER.
Polka dancing is fun and it gets you out of your own head.
@Just nutha ignint cracker:
I put banana slices in my morning oatmeal. Perhaps mush would work as well. I guess I’ll find out.
I remember frozen bananas dipped in chocolate. You cannot eat them. it was like biting concrete.
I didn’t go to Nye’s often, but occasionally the Union Bar, 3rd NE and Hennepin if I recall. I had several friends, mostly musicians that lived on Nicollet Island. The country in the middle of the city. The Island cats, Doris’ donkeys and more chickens than you could consume the eggs.
Turn off-a da bubble machine… Tank-a yu boyce.
I remember a long detailed respectful conversational give and take over the definition of Hollaback Girl and if the conceit was mysoginistic or empowering at the Royal Mile back when.
What was funny was that James was the sole black guy contributing and had no clue what Hollaback meant let alone what a Hollaback girl was. He got it quick.
That was a good afternoon.
Old guys in hats socializing during the day so the can oblivion themselves at night with cheap hard liquor when no one sees. Old women in too much make-up.
Reminds me of a song I really liked many years ago.
Johnny Winter, Cheap Tequila
James drinks beer with ice cubes through a straw out of a pilsner glass.
He is a weird cool dude. Knows what he wants.
Really good chess player. Kicks me hard usually. I won twice mostly by accident.
I checked out Office Depot and they were out of all their large, commercial rolls like are used in restrooms at schools, restaurants, stores, and other businesses.
Grocery stores still have empty shelves on some items. We went to two stores and they did not have what we were looking for. So we went to Burger King, which was doing a lot of business.
I saw The Suburbs at The Union in 1981 with a girl named either Clara or Karla. I remember exactly her last name. Finnish names are pretty distinctive.
Late September or early October. Rainy.
Memory is strange.
One of my best friends lived on Nicollet Island.
She lived on the northern edge.
Nicollet Island is so cool. A forgotten place so close to DT and north east. There but distinct.
@Kathy: Bananas are always mush after you freeze them, but they’re still useful. Freeze them in their skins, let them thaw, and squeeze the banana mush into your measuring cup for making banana bread. Peel them, cut them in large chunks, and use them instead of ice in a smoothie. I always freeze them when they start to verge on over-ripe for the best flavor.
Also, drying them for banana chips is an option if you have a food dryer.
I always keep frozen peeled ginger and cloves of garlic so I have them ready to mince for Indian or Chinese dishes. Sometimes I freeze leftover chopped chilis too.
Best vegetables to freeze are bell peppers and onions because they need minimal processing. All you have to do is clean them, chop them up and freeze them. (No blanching required as you have to do with spinach, zucchini, carrots, snap peas or broccoli.) Sliced and sauteed mushrooms also keep well. You have frozen bell peppers, onions and mushroom, and you’re read to make a quick pizza.
It’s best to freeze things on a tray at first and then bag them after you freeze them if you only want to use some at a time rather than the whole lot.
@Sleeping Dog: I don’t get it. Our state’s ABC stores are allowed to open, but coffee shops, snack bars, and and candy stores aren’t.
I was a sorry little punk shit bastard fuck, and the ladies at Nye’s polka danced with me anyways.
Nye’s Polonaise Room fucking rocks.
Inclusivity is a new watchword. Nye’s was cool before it was a thing.
If drag queens wanna polka dance Nye’s was cool with that. Even way back then. If you’re a neighbor you sort of have to dance. And the definition of neighbor was pretty inclusive.
A lot of my friends are queer and unafraid. It was always a cool friendly place.
Don’t even get me started on Half Time Rec.
Write your senator and representative. They may not act on your message, but it will have been heard.
I used to live in a place where “Taks” was common.
@de stijl: Yeah, I can relate to that. I attempted dancing (after several beers) with the ladies on weekends at Pier 70 in downtown Seattle back in the 1980’s, but they backed off saying that I danced like a black guy. Say what?