That works only because demand is typically so steady

Sunday, April 5th, 2020

The shelves are bare, because the toilet paper industry is split into two, largely separate markets, commercial and consumer:

Georgia-Pacific, a leading toilet paper manufacturer based in Atlanta, estimates that the average household will use 40% more toilet paper than usual if all of its members are staying home around the clock. That’s a huge leap in demand for a product whose supply chain is predicated on the assumption that demand is essentially constant. It’s one that won’t fully subside even when people stop hoarding or panic-buying.


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.


Because toilet paper is high volume but low value, the industry runs on extreme efficiency, with mills built to work at full capacity around the clock even in normal times. That works only because demand is typically so steady. If toilet paper manufacturers spend a bunch of money now to refocus on the retail channel, they’ll face the same problem in reverse once people head back to work again.

Other industries face similar challenges:

The CEO of a fruit and vegetable supplier told NPR’s Weekend Edition that schools and restaurants are canceling their banana orders, while grocery stores are selling out and want more. The problem is that the bananas he sells to schools and restaurants are “petite” and sold loose in boxes of 150, whereas grocery store bananas are larger and sold in bunches. Beer companies face a similar challenge converting commercial keg sales to retail cans and bottles.


  1. Graham says:

    No one should need to talk to someone in the industry to know institutional TP is ‘thinner and more utilitarian’. Just use any workplace or shopping centre bathroom.

    That was an excellent Medium piece. The kind of thing that raises a good point and makes it so well that it seems obvious, in retrospect, to those of us who hadn’t given it much thought.

    It’s mainly the supply-side argument but the demand-side version of the same argument works- it’s rational to stock up on toilet paper if you and your family are suddenly going to be spending a lot more time at home with one or two bathrooms instead of outside with access to workplace ones.

    Maybe not so much, but hey. You need it at least daily.

  2. Wilson says:

    They could just divert the shipments. In these circumstances people aren’t so picky; a pallet of commercial toilet paper or petite bananas would sell.

  3. Wang Wei Lin says:

    First world problems. Whining about the toilet paper and petite bananas. If you get hungry or need toilet paper then you’ll take it.

  4. Harry Jones says:

    There must have been a time before toilet paper was invented. People coped somehow.

  5. Some Random Guy says:

    Sorry, Harry. Corncobs won’t flush.

  6. Graham says:

    The older methods [leaves?] might still be available if harder to come by in a city environment in which the trees all belong to the city or private owners, and many don’t have leaves yet in April.

    That and we’d have to stop using the flush toilets. Most stuff won’t.

    Not that it would be impossible but we don’t want to get to the point at which we have to adopt solutions that increase the unsanitary conditions at a time when people are supposed to stay locked in.

  7. Some Random Guy says:

    I can’t believe I have to say this, but if you’re stuck at home with no TP, couldn’t you just take extra showers?

    My grandparents (born in 1898 and 1899) raised many children using chamber pots and an outdoor privy. Corncobs for boys, last year’s Sears catalog for the girls. My aunts and uncles said it was an honor system.

    I’ve personally used various leaves and grasses whilst in the infantry and hiking and such. A few memorable times we cut strips off our undershirts.

    I’m a huge fan of TP, but can’t we come up with some workarounds when it’s in short supply?

    I’m beginning to see this virus as a good and necessary thing. It’s time we collectively learned a few lessons and some self reliance.

  8. Harry Jones says:

    There are parts of the civilized world where they leave used toilet paper in the wastebasket, because the pipes can’t handle it.

    Who am I to judge them?

  9. Graham says:

    I would say my earlier response was mainly shaped by the assumed requirement to maintain other existing social practices in an urban environment, multitenant building, and continued use of public infrastructure such as the garbage removal department or the continued existence of the water [I can't see things getting that bad], as well as considering that some commercial products that substitute for toilet paper might in their turn become hard to come by by the same process of elimination. [heh]

    But yes, if the TP runs out there are other paper goods still to hand, though newsprint isn’t as common as it once was, paper towels can be had. So can kleenex for now. Once they run out, regular towels and cloths combined with a lot of water can be deployed as makeshift hybrid bidets. Presuming the water and power hold out, both the shower and the laundry will facilitate.

    Once we’re past that, I’ll be a bit at a loss. No that many trees around here. Though if we’re at it that long, they will sprout leaves. They won’t last long in the city though if everyone is after them.

    I figure with those plans I’m doing well for someone who was never an infantryman.

    But I might get some more TP. Just in case. Also, the place I live does have ongoing access to the commercial TP market so long as that holds, so there’s that.

    All this will give me a new appreciation for the simple joys of squeezing the Charmin.

  10. Sam J. says:

    Some people are buying a sprayer attachment, attaching it to the toilet. Spray then use a towel to dry. Fly over country bidet.

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