Wipe Away Those Presumptions

Like many of you, I’ve wandered past the toilet paper aisle, seen the Venezuelan-style devastation, and wondered “what the flaming hootie-hoo are people DOING with all the TP? Are they fixing to eat the stuff?”

Well, no. Hoarding isn’t the problem. A supply chain built on maximum efficiency and minimum reserve inventory – pretty close to “just in time”, in logistical terms – and a re-balancing of home and commercial sales (less TP at work, much much more at home) has left the toilet paper market way out of whack:

“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.
So why can’t we just send that toilet paper to Safeway or CVS? That’s where supply chains and distribution channels come in.
Not only is it not the same product, but it often doesn’t come from the same mills.
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.”

It’s sort of like the shortage of .22 Long Rifle ammunition in the early 2010s; accelerated purchasing threw the supply chain out of whack, and since production was inelastic, it stayed out of whack for a long, long time.

The whole piece is worth a read.

17 thoughts on “Wipe Away Those Presumptions

  1. Then, throw in the fact that many TP factories are in NE Wisconsin, near Kohler, Wisconsin, just makes the conspiracy a little more complex.

  2. I read this yesterday. It makes sense, but when this crisis first became inflated, people were buying multiple packages of it. I saw it myself, people leaving Target with carts full.

  3. Giving serious consideration to a bathroom remodel with the addition of a bidet. My septic system would probably love that.

  4. I’ve read a few variations of this story in the past few days.
    It’s BS.
    How do I know?
    The way you can usually tell a story is BS.
    It defies the facts (toilet paper disappeared from store shelves days to weeks before people stopped going to work).
    And it omits available supporting evidence that would strengthen its argument. The author (just some random guy), could tell you what production and sales figures were for household TP in February & March, but he did not.
    The only number he gives you is the made-up number from Georgia Pacific that people on lockdown will use 40% more household TP. That number is a fantasy. Are you using more or less toilet paper since it disappeared from store shelves?

  5. Scott: A remodel isn’t even required. A couple years ago, I was at a friends place and used an add on bidet. I decided to get one. You can get one that heats the water (and toilet seat) and replaces your existing toilet seat. Or, if you can handle that blast of chilly water, you can get one for under $30 that attaches under your existing seat, and just hooks into your standard tank plumbing. Took about 10 minutes, and no additional electrical required (to heat seat/water). I highly recommend. Especially as an alternative to caffeine to waking up. (reference above about cold water).

    Boss and MP – yes, people were panic buying. This article ignores that. However, as has been discussed, there are a lot of people that flat out don’t have any knowledge of supply chains. Maybe the bright side of all this is people start to actually think and learn. Not that it’ll happen.

  6. There was an article in my local paper this AM that discussed issues at local grocery stores. They basically sold out of long shelf staples last month. What they have now is a surplus of short shelf life food (meat, baked goods, fresh vegetables). The explanation offered was that short shelf life food tends to be more expensive, and people are beginning to miss pay checks.

  7. It defies the facts (toilet paper disappeared from store shelves days to weeks before people stopped going to work).

    Yes. This is a big mark against the general utility of the article, but I think it’s still probably true. Especially with regards to the continued lack of consumer TP.

  8. MP – I noticed the same thing last week as I made the trip to Cub for my neighbors and I. Had taken a picture of the frozen veggie aisles empty shelves. Went back to produce section to get broccoli.

    The flour was gone as well, but plenty of bread. I’m wondering how many actually know how to bake bread. Did they stock up on yeast as well? And, why aren’t people panic buying frozen pizza? There was plenty of that left. If I’m going to sit inside, I plan to eat things I enjoy.

    It reminded me of a logistics planner that sent a freezer CONEX to a Combat Outpost we were building in Sadr City in 2008. Lots of Hot Pockets as an alternative to MRE’s. However, there were no microwaves. So, just set in sun on metal roofs and let thaw. I will NEVER eat another Hot Pocket.

  9. When it comes to supply chains (like everything else), you can have resiliency, or efficiency, but not both.

  10. The few times I’ve been to Cub in the last couple weeks, Jack’s and Roma frozen pizzas were pretty picked over. The more expensive brands (Tombstone, Heggies, Lotza Mozza, CPK, Bellatoria, etc.) had plenty from which to choose. Surprisingly, Totino’s party pizzas (cheapest of them all) were in good supply.

    I think the reason TP and other paper products are still scarce, is a combination of MPs and Mitch’s reasons. People started panic buying, which disrupted the supply chain models. Supply chains have a tough time switching direction and capacity (MP: When it comes to supply chains (like everything else), you can have resiliency, or efficiency, but not both.). So it will still be a while before things get back to normal in this “new normal”. Imagine if TP, paper plate and paper napkin capacities ramp up to meet the new demand, and then the stay at home orders are lifted? The entire chain from the logging industry, to the mills, to the stores, will be swamped in their respective products/goods. Fortunately, they’re not perishable and won’t be lost. They’ll just take up extra storage space until the 2nd new normal can be adjusted to.

    The only number he gives you is the made-up number from Georgia Pacific that people on lockdown will use 40% more household TP. That number is a fantasy. Are you using more or less toilet paper since it disappeared from store shelves?

    Well, considering that most of us who used to go to school and to the office are now all home for 8-10 more hours per day, every weekday, we ARE using more TP at home. How much more? That I can’t answer, but it is more.

  11. Want to start a flame war? Try this on for size . . . the shortage of home grade toilet paper is the fault of feminists.

    See, feminists insist that women are supposed to be at work, not home baking cookies. Women in the workplace run to the bathroom as often as I do, but whereas I stand up and use no paper, they sit and use commercial grade paper. Now that those workplace women are home all day, they’re using a lot more home-grade two-ply softer and gentler paper.

    If feminists hadn’t convinced girls to go to work instead of being stay-at-home Moms, the toilet paper distribution chain wouldn’t have become distorted so there wouldn’t be a shortage of home grade paper now.

    Feminists are to blame. They brought it on themselves. Plainly, the correct answer is to ban feminism.

    There . . . that ought to set the cat among the pigeons. 🙂

  12. Regarding the other long shelf life stuff, I even noticed that at my local Lunds/Byerleys. Almost all of the 10 oz canned soups were gone. Of your classic recipe cream soups, there were only a couple of cans of cream of celery and cream of potato left. There was still a good selection of bigger cans, i.e. Progresso, Campbell’s home style and if you went over to the Lund’s branded frozen soup section, there was a good supply of that, too. Same thing at Cub and Festival yesterday. I’m sure though that a lot of that was due to the kids being home.
    Like shaking, I won’t touch Hot Pockets, either, but apparently, the kids are eating them, because I happened to notice that those and the pizza rolls were also pretty empty.

  13. Boss – you need the smaller cans of cream of mushroom to make Tator Tot Hot Dish. I can see why there would be a run on those!

  14. that ought to set the cat among the pigeons

    Or the pigeon amongst the puss- er, cats.

  15. Having worked in a factory working on “JIT” (or trying) supplied by JIT suppliers, it can be really impressive how quickly JIT can result in a train wreck. This is especially so if the company doesn’t handle suppliers well and have contingency plans in place.

    Impressive, or probably more accurately, depressive. Panic can quickly show you precisely how “lean” the supply of a commodity is, that’s for sure.

    On the light side, we could really get a kick out of how feminism means, for many, leaving the home for ten hours a day to use inferior toilet paper and eat inferior food. :^)

  16. The TP panic just proved to me how full of sh*t most people are. I bet Lo_IQ_Em got a 40′ trailer load of pallets.

  17. shaking;
    Why the hell do you think I was looking all over for a can of it? 😂😂

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