We assumed that toilet paper shortages were caused by panic buying, by hoarders, by people who were risk averse. All of us were just suffering from “anticipatory anxiety.”
It turns out there is another, more unsettling explanation.
Toilet Paper Shortages
We were told not to be concerned with the run on toilet paper. After all, supply was stable and so too was our demand. Although sales (according consulting firm NCSolutions) soared by a whopping 845 percent on March 11 and March 12 when more lockdowns were announced, once we returned to our normal buying habits, all would be well. Or, as one paper guru explained, “You are not using more of it. You are just filling your closet with it.”
But that is not quite true.
Imagine a fork in the road for our toilet paper supply. A part of it goes to commercial establishments from one group of paper mills. Those shipments typically move on huge pallets with more “utilitarian” recycled paper in larger rolls. Meanwhile, what we buy in the supermarket is typically 100 percent virgin fiber. It feels and looks better.
We could say that one market is commercial and the other is consumer. The problem though is that each has a different supply chain. Whereas you and I typically go through 141 rolls of toilet paper a year (134 in Germany and 49 in China), with the lockdown, paper producer Georgia-Pacific says a household could be unrolling 40 percent more. So yes, we might need more and the commercial kind is having difficulty getting to us. Its institutional wrapping does not even have bar codes.
Our Bottom Line: Supply Shifts
Toilet paper is not alone. The bananas destined for restaurants and school cafeterias are smaller than what we buy in grocery stores. With 150 in a box, they are packed loose, not in the bunches that grocers stock.
The basic idea here is that the shipping setup cannot easily change and maybe should not change. After all, some time in the future. restaurants will again be buying boxes of bananas and we will return to using commercial toilet paper.
For some smiles, do look at the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 1973. Seeing the Johnny Carson clips makes it worth your time:
My sources and more: Through The Washington Post, this Las Vegas news station, and Medium, I discovered there was another side to the toilet paper story. Then, if you want to read more about shifts in demand, CNN has the facts on beer and mixed drinks.