Paper goods giant Georgia-Pacific is cranking out 1.5 million more rolls of toilet paper a day than two months ago, but George Bugg still can’t find it on the shelves of the Decatur, Ga., stores where he shops.
From Lima, Ohio, to Tabernash, Colorado and points in between and beyond, people are losing their cool over a toilet paper supply that continues to get wiped out.
Bugg wants to know: What gives? Nearly two months into new shopping habits brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, why haven’t manufacturers caught up to demand for toilet paper and paper towels?
“I didn’t think we are using much more than usual. But, in the last month, I haven’t been able to find it at Sam’s. I went to Kroger the next day, the paper towel rack was empty. There were a few off-brand packs of toilet paper, and people were picking up those,” said Bugg.
It’s the same across much of the nation. In response, manufacturers have restarted idled tissue-making machines, increased efficiency in their 24-hour, seven-day operations, and shipped more paper faster. But they haven’t caught up to panicked consumer buying and societal and business changes that have altered American loo-ology.
The situation leaves business marketeers unable to predict when the TP shortage might end.
Bugg is likely right. American’s are not using more toilet paper, though they are probably using more paper towels for cleaning.
“In the end of the day, there is only the same number of people wiping their, um, you know what,” said Troy Runge, the chair of the biological systems engineering department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
But where that’s occurring has changed, and that’s one thing contributing to the shortage.
Companies make two lines of toilet paper. One is made from recycled paper and some virgin wood fiber and ends up in offices, schools, factories, restaurants and hospitals. The other line is higher quality and meant for homes. It starts as a slurry of mostly imported, soft Brazilian eucalyptus wood fibers and is manufactured into multiple plies with stamped patterns and even scents. With people staying at home because of business closings and shelter-in-place orders, the need for the home-quality stuff has skyrocketed, creating an instant and vast imbalance in demand.
Data from Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific shows an average U.S. household of 2.6 people uses 409 rolls of toilet paper yearly. But staying at home 24-7 would result in about a 140% increase of average daily usage.
Runge — a former 15-year veteran of Kimberly-Clark, one of the big three U.S. tissue manufacturers, along with Georgia-Pacific and Proctor & Gamble — said there is more to the calculus of shortage.
The profit margins for tissue paper are low. To stay competitive, companies have just enough equipment to meet expected demand. The sudden rush was a component that disrupted the carefully balanced supply process.
Georgia-Pacific is squeezing efficiencies out of its 14 paper-making plants.
“We are breaking production records and shipping beyond our typical capacity,” spokesman Eric Abercrombie said.
Runge said companies could make more household tissue by converting machines from making commercial toilet paper to household tissue. But that would mean shutting down a machine to switch over.
And though many commercial users of toilet paper have shut down operations, they have continued, like household consumers, to stock up, Abercrombie said. So buying has not declined.
Buying and hoarding have been a hallmark of the coronavirus shopping binge unlike anything the nation has seen for generations. Hoarding has happened regionally, such as when a hurricane or snowstorm hits. But the pandemic has had global reach.
Retailers usually keep several weeks’ worth of goods on hand in warehouses, but the national shopping binge drained stocks quickly of high-demand items.
And, when shoppers see shelves empty of the items they are looking for, they tend to stock up the next time they find the goods.
“People don’t know why this is happening, so they keep it safe and buy as much as they can,” University of Georgia assistant marketing professor Julio Sevilla said.