September 18, 2020

The Coronavirus Toilet Paper Shortage: A Look at What Happened & How

Paul Patterson

On March 16, 2020 — less than three months after the first COVID-19 case arrived in the United States — the San Francisco Bay Area issued a shelter-in-place order. This would mark the beginning of a seemingly endless saga of quarantine in America. What followed would rock the toilet paper industry like never before.

A roll of toilet paper and a mask. Two staples of the coronavirus toilet paper shortage

As the country began to shut down, Americans converged on supermarkets and general stores in search of any supplies they could get their hands on. Canned goods, cleaning products, and toilet paper flew off shelves at record-breaking speeds.

This left small retailers and multinational corporations alike utterly depleted and kept shelves empty for nearly weeks at a time. You might even remember a short period of time when Reel had sold out.

Although the entire pandemic has been a devastating experience for all of us, we can still learn from it.

Here’s everything you need to know about the COVID-19 toilet paper crisis and how we can prevent another one in the future.

A Bottleneck in Toilet Paper Production

In the United States, the majority of industries have two distinct groups of customers: commercial businesses and residential households. The toilet paper industry is no different.

Before the pandemic, there was no shortage of toilet paper. Rather, supply and demand had been distributed fairly between commercial and residential America. However, when Coronavirus hit the U.S. back in early spring, more and more people were staying at home.

Almost overnight, businesses began closing and schools began shutting down. Suddenly, the bulk of Americans could not leave their home.

As a result of this rapid decline in commercial demand coupled with the sharp spike in the demand from residential Americans, the industry became overwhelmed. Instead of a stable split, residential households were almost the only ones buying toilet paper.

The Response of Manufacturers

Although toilet paper manufacturers rushed to meet this incredibly high demand, it was just too much. A lack of specialized equipment severely limited their ability to produce huge amounts of toilet paper as quickly as needed.

“There is not some big underground warehouse like in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where there is all this toilet paper sitting around in case it is needed.” — Dan Clarahan, United Converting

For this reason, many producers aimed to convert commercial equipment in order to deliver residential paper products. However, it would be neither possible nor realistic to convert all of their equipment — or even the majority of it. After all, once the pandemic is over commercial demand will likely rise again.

Wanton Panic Buying Went Unchecked

Even though the bottleneck in toilet paper production contributed to the shortage, it was not the only factor. In reality, it was panic buying on a mass scale that truly brought the industry to its knees.

In fear of a sweeping economic and societal shutdown, anxious shoppers flooded stores and filled their carts to the brim with toilet paper and other supplies. This unchecked panic buying further hindered the already-impaired toilet paper industry.

A shopper panic-buying toilet paper.

Panic buying didn’t just affect suppliers, though. It also affected other shoppers — in particular, those who couldn’t easily get to the store.

At the height of the crisis, high-risk communities were also at risk of not having enough food and supplies. The elderly, pregnant women, and those with chronic health conditions struggled to get to the store.

Once they finally got there, food and supplies were scarce. Boundless panic buying had left shelves barren and the at-risk more vulnerable. Fortunately, many retailers took action to ensure everyone got the supplies they’d need.

Retailers Trying to Manage Demand

In response to the overwhelming demand for toilet paper, retailers found ways to keep it on the shelves a little longer. One of the first actions retailers took was to limit the number of essential items each shopper could buy.

Items like toilet paper, eggs, and cleaning products often had a one or two-item limit. This prevented individuals from clearing shelves in one fell swoop and helped keep supplies in stock for everyone that needed them.

Some stores even had employees supervising popular products to enforce these limits. In fact, I particularly remember going into a Costco last May, and I actually had to wait for an employee to hand me a pack of toilet paper — customers couldn’t even grab one themselves.

Extra employee supervision likely helped prevent any in-aisle fights over toilet paper, too.

Finally, most stores began offering special times during which only seniors are allowed to shop. Senior hours — many of which are still in effect — make sure that our older relatives have the supplies they need to stay safe and healthy.

Together We Can Prevent Future Shortages

Although this toilet paper crisis seemed to come out of nowhere, there are ways to make sure another one doesn't happen in the future. In fact, most of the responsibility to do so falls to us as consumers.

An empty toilet paper roll with a reassuring "Don't Panic" during the Coronavirus toilet paper shortage.

Without a doubt, the best way to prevent another toilet paper shortage is to know how much you need. Knowing how much toilet paper you need to get through, let’s say, a month of lockdown will allow you to strategically plan your supermarket runs.

If you’d rather not do the math to figure out how long a roll will last, there are plenty of tools to help you do so. Several toilet paper calculators have risen out of this pandemic to help you determine exactly how much toilet paper you need.

Once you know how much you need, be rational. Everyone needs toilet paper, so only buy what’s necessary.

Putting it into Practice

By managing our own toilet paper supply, we can likely keep another shortage from happening. This would allow everyone to get toilet paper without utterly crippling manufacturers.

Although it’s easier said than done, acting on concrete facts — not emotion — is what will ultimately get us through any crisis safely.

Keep up with more toilet paper news and updates by following us on social media!

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