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OM in the News: Too Much Toilet Paper

April 16, 2021

After a year in which toilet-tissue shortages left consumers scrambling for squares, sales are plummeting to below pre-pandemic levels. writes The Wall Street Journal (April 14, 2021). Recent sales fell more than 4% from the same period a year earlier, before the spread of Covid-19. The decline, which comes even though legions of Americans continue to work and attend school from home, indicates last year’s stockpiling is starting to have an effect on sales.

toilet paper

“You never knew when you weren’t going to be able to get it, so every time we went out we got some,” said one New Rochelle, N.Y. woman. “They just kept amassing.” She still has 54 rolls, stored in various places throughout her home: in a guest room, the back of a linen closet, the laundry room in the basement. (This is embarrassing–I just counted that my wife and I have 66 rolls in our closet and laundry room!)

Demand for toilet paper shot up in the outbreak’s initial weeks, doubling in the second week of March, and remained elevated throughout most of 2020. Americans spent more than $11 billion on toilet paper last year, up from $9 billion in a typical year.

A rush on other household staples, from disinfecting wipes to paper towels, led to equally or more-severe shortages of those products. But none triggered consumers’ anxieties as much as toilet paper. Walmart’s CEO, on a “Today Show” appearance in April 2020, urged consumers to stop buying so much toilet paper.

Tissue used in office bathrooms is generally built at different plants, and funneled through a different supply chain, than toilet paper sold to consumers at stores. So the sudden drop in demand for public-restroom quality tissue didn’t lead to a supply surplus of the higher-end stuff. Meantime, whereas companies were able to more quickly increase capacity for cleaning products, hand sanitizer and other in-demand items, doing so for toilet paper was less feasible given that making toilet paper in bulk requires 4-story-tall machinery that costs billions of dollars.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Relate this article’s topic to our discussion of the “bullwhip effect” in Supp. 11 of your text.
  2. How many of you also hoarded toilet paper last year?
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