I, too, thought the toilet paper would be back in stock by now. I got used to seeing empty shelves throughout the grocery and drugstores, but assumed that once enough people had purchased their 20-pack of toilet paper, the shelves would return to normal.
But that has not been the case. Over the past month I’ve wondered if this is the new normal: waiting in line, buying whatever’s available, getting used to adjusted store hours and policies. If you, too, are wondering when there will be toilet paper again, the answer is the one you dread: Not soon, and it’s complicated.
“Part of [why we impulse buy toilet paper] is the human disgust factor,” explained Dr. Simon Croom, a professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego. “We don’t want to be left without.”
So you’re going to buy the biggest pack of TP you can find because you don’t want to think about the possibility that you won’t have enough.
That fear of not having enough can be exacerbated by the idea that you’re going to be at home for the foreseeable future. Every time you take a roll out of your bathroom closet, you’re going to see what’s left. Every time you open your kitchen cabinets, you see the real-time supply of food you have available. And as Will Oremus points out for Marker, you’re using your own bathroom and kitchen more, because you’re not going to work or school or visiting your favorite restaurant once a week like you used to.
“Normally, when demand changes, it’s in a short burst, or a slight but significant increase,” said Croom. But the initial wave of panic shopping by customers in early March has given way to sustained buying patterns beyond normal levels. And that’s why you’re seeing empty grocery shelves, weeks after we all allegedly stocked up on toilet paper.
Think of it like a really long hurricane. You know a hurricane’s coming, you see it getting closer on the map, and you go out to buy the essential supplies you need to replace in last year’s hurricane kit. But you wait and wait for the hurricane to come. And until the eye of the storm passes over your house, you’re still going to have that feeling of panic, that voice in your head saying you’re not ready.
Unlike a hurricane, which impacts a particular region, the coronavirus has a far wider reach. Retailers have game plans for emergencies like natural disasters, which might include rerouting products to different stores.
But it’s harder to move inventory around to meet geographic need when the need is everywhere. After Hurricane Katrina, the massive rebuilding effort meant that drywall went up in price and was hard to get in areas far from New Orleans, explained Croom.
“Different retailers have different degrees of response to panic buying,” Croom said. How much you, the consumer, notices it depends on that retailer’s playbook.
Imagine how you’d deal with a holiday season that goes on for weeks in the middle of March, Croom said. Then add the need to clean your store and prevent overcrowding on top of it. It’s the perfect storm of complicating factors for stores, whether they’re grocery stores, drugstores or big-box retailers.
But it’s not as if your local store can call up for more TP.
Supply chain in the U.S. is one of the most efficient in the world, said Dr. José Holguín-Veras, civil and environmental engineering professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. That efficiency means there’s very little excess—you can’t just reach into the back of a warehouse to find a stash of toilet paper.
Toilet paper is a primarily domestic product where demand doesn’t usually vary that much. So it’s hard for manufacturers to step up production, Croom said, especially when they might be short-staffed.
“We are prioritizing our bestselling sizes to maximize the amount of product we can ship to retailers,” said Loren Fanroy of Procter & Gamble, which makes Charmin toilet paper, “And we remain focused on making sure our products are available when and where people shop during this highly dynamic situation.”
Terry Balluck, spokesperson for Kimberly-Clark, also said the company is manufacturing as quickly as possible to meet demand. “We have plans in place to address the increased demand for our products to the extent possible, including accelerated production and reallocating inventory to help meet these needs,” he said. “We will continue to make adjustments to our plans as necessary.” Kimberly-Clark makes Cottonelle and Scott products.
OK, so the toilet paper companies are on it. But that doesn’t mean that as soon as that inventory gets sent out to stores that things will be back to normal throughout the store. Every item you see on the grocery shelves has a different production timeline, so it’s hard to predict when every shelf will fill back up. “Where does the product originate? Is it seasonal? How is it stored? Different supply chains have different characteristics,” Croom said.
Or, think about eggs. “There’s a bit of a lead time there,” to increase production, Croom said. You’ve got to raise chicks and wait for them to lay eggs. A supplier can divert eggs to areas that have more of a shortage than others, but they can’t snap their fingers and conjure up more eggs.
And adjustments take time even when you get to the store level of the chain.
Take Walmart’s most recent safety measures, as an example. Temperature checks for employees and mask and glove availability were announced for employees on Tuesday, but a Walmart spokesperson emphasized that it will take about three weeks to put these measures into place at every store. And that’s for a decision that requires, essentially, three kinds of items: masks, gloves, and thermometers.
Those items aren’t even for sale. A Walmart supercenter sells about 120,000 different products.
For you and me, this is a matter of patience. And if you already have a reasonable supply of toilet paper at home, for the love of all things sanitary, do not try to buy more right away.
Having a supply of toilet paper large enough you can challenge your pets to jump over it doesn’t actually increase your well-being right now, but it might deprive your neighbor from that resource, Holguín-Veras explained. As consumers, we have to be willing to suffer a little to avoid all of us suffering a lot, he said.
If you’re thinking of calling your local supermarket or big-box store to ask when they’re getting a shipment of paper products, don’t be surprised if they won’t tell you (or pretend not to know). One retailer I spoke with said they’re not answering any inquiries about stock levels. If it did say so (say, if a radio station called, then announced to listeners when the store would get its next TP shipment) could incite a rush of shoppers to a store that’s trying to enforce physical distancing standards.
But the shortages won’t last forever. “I’m guessing once the majority of people who have had that visceral reaction have got their 2,000 rolls, then things will calm down,” said Croom.
“There’s no reason to fear,” Holguín-Veras said, noting that the U.S. is not at risk for considerable food shortages for several months even if production is reduced or delayed.
“It’s a matter of how long we can last without going to the store,” Croom said. “You have to plan your consumption at home… It’s not something we’re used to.”