Toilet paper isn’t scarce. The raw material for toilet paper literally grows on trees. To MAKE it scarce takes layers of stupidity, each with its own nuances.
Original Version: 3/23/2020
I started thinking about this, and the grocery stores bear complicity as well, so I’ve added a section for that.
1. Supply Chain
Before we talk about toilet-paper scarcity, let’s talk about the toilet paper supply chain.
The paper company gets wood pulp, often from tree farms that are owned and grown by the paper company, and turns pulp in to toilet paper, along with other ingredients and manufacturing steps that we don’t really need to care about.
There is no shortage of trees, which means, no shortage of wood pulp, which means no shortage on the manufacturing (supply) side.
It’s not really efficient for a paper company to sell toilet paper to each individual store or chain, so they sell through a distributor.
The manufacturer puts all of their toilet paper in packages of various sizes, and the packages get loaded on to shipping pallets, and those pallets get loaded on to trucks, and those trucks, completely full of toilet paper, go to the regional distributor’s warehouse, where the toilet paper gets unloaded, and sits and waits to be shipped, along with other goods from other manufacturers, to a local distributor.
When the local distributor places an order, that order might include toilet paper. The regional distributor loads up a truck with all of the items ordered by the local distributor, including, say, 5 pallets of toilet paper. THAT truck gets unloaded in the local distributor’s warehouse, where it sits and waits for a store to place an order.
Finally, when your local grocery store places an order that might include toilet paper, ANOTHER truck gets loaded up with all of the items ordered by the store, which now includes items from multiple regional distributors, and might include 1 pallet of toilet paper.
That pallet of toilet paper gets unloaded at your local grocery store, and the workers there stock and restock the shelves until they run out.
When they run out, the process works in reverse –
- The store places an order to the local distributor
- If the local distributor is out, they place a call to the regional distributor
- If the regional distributor is out, they place a call to the manufacturer
Chain stores might use a regional distributor and act as their own local distributor – for example, this ensures that the same items are available at the same prices at two different stores in your local city.
Much larger retailers such as Wal-Mart buy directly from the manufacturer, and act as their own regional distributor.
So I might have gotten parts of this wrong, but by-and-large, the overall sketch of the process is correct.
With me so far?
When we talk about the supply chain breaking down, keep in mind that there is no shortage on the supply side – we have the same materials, equipment, and staffing, so we have one of two issues (or both):
- Either there is a logistics issue – for example, roads are blocked, or a lack of drivers could create scarcity (and thereby inflate demand) because regional / local distributors can’t get restocked.
- Or, temporary demand exceeds the quantities kept on hand at the local / regional distributors, and either the regional distributor is waiting to get resupplied by the manufacturer, or the local distributor is waiting to get resupplied by the regional distributor.
Neither truck drivers nor their vehicles are affected by the quarantine – in some cases, it might be difficult to deliver to the crowded stores, but the stores have started modifying their hours to accommodate for this.
Instead, due to the rapid spread of stupidity, all of the local distributors were cleaned out (no pun intended), and have to be resupplied by the regional distributors.
Once the local distributors get resupplied, then the stores will get restocked.
2. How to Make Toilet Paper Scarce in 4 Easy Steps
2.1. Wave 1: Some Idiot Buys a Bunch of Toilet Paper
Why? Who knows.
Maybe it’s not even related to the virus. Maybe they intended to donate some toilet paper to the local old folks’ home, knowing that a quarantine might be coming, and knowing that it might be difficult for them to get supplies.
Maybe they have a business that makes toilet paper prom dresses.
2.2. Wave 2: Stupidity Becomes Infectious
Without thinking about it, the idiots from wave 2 see the wave 1 folks with cart-loads of toilet paper, and decide that there must be a reason for it, so they in turn decide to buy way more toilet paper than they need.
NOW there is a local shortage.
2.3. Wave 3: Panic is Fueled by The Media and Internet
Someone witnesses the wave 2 chaos and posts “hey, my local store just ran out of toilet paper, and I saw folks carrying baskets-ful out to their cars – what the heck is going on?”
This goes viral.
The “toilet paper shortage” (that doesn’t exist) then gets national media attention.
The “national toilet paper shortage” is now a thing, complete with internet memes and posts on social media.
Now, all the wave 3 idiots feel the need, despite “experts advice to the contrary”, to go buy WAY more toilet paper than they will ever need.
Now, there are local shortages all over the place.
2.4. Wave 4: Profiteers
This is the point where stupidity becomes insidious.
Where the panickers leave off, the profiteers take over.
These are the folks who, after the initial panic, look around and say to themselves “hey… my local store still has whole shelves full of toilet paper. Rather than being a decent human being, I’m going to go BUY IT ALL, and then sell it for a profit.”
So they buy up what’s left, without even a real need for it, other than to try to take advantage of people later on.
And now, in less than two weeks, YOUR local store has no toilet paper.
2.5. Store Stupidity
The stores bear some responsibility for all of this mess, as well.
The store managers know exactly how much of what to order from their distributor at any given time.
This is a heuristic built up over time that takes in to account current stock levels, seasonality, sporting events, the weather, FLU SEASON, and all sorts of hidden variables.
Likewise, the distributors know how much of any given product to have on-hand at any given time, also as the result of a similar heuristic.
So there are multiple failures that lie with the store manager, in my opinion.
- Hindsight is 20/20, but by the 2nd or 3rd cart COMPLETELY FULL of toilet paper, the store manager should have started locking things down.
- The stores eventually went to a rationing system, but this happened way too late – over a week after the national news was reporting on a shortage. Implementing a rationing system immediately would have prevented the shortage altogether.
- Even before the national news stories, when you see whole cart-fulls of toilet paper rolling out the door, you should know something is wrong.
- There was a missed opportunity (and I’m being kind here) to implement rationing much faster
- As soon as it became evident that stock levels were affected by this crisis, the store manager should have been on the phone to their distributor to get a special shipment. Presumably, with all of the grocery stores being similarly-affected, the distributor could have filled a couple of semis with nothing but toilet paper, to make a resupply run.
In my opinion, the store managers did too little, too late, and bear some level of complicity for this nonsense.
In the future, if you see whole cart-fulls of ANYTHING, the customer should at least be questioned by store management.
As a matter of fact, going forward, ALL of the stores nationwide should implement a “no hoarding” policy – if you buy more than some nominal number of anything, you should be required to provide a reasonable explanation.
3. Toilet Paper Demand Bubble
Of course, at this point, there is still plenty of paper in the local warehouses, but the supply trucks only drop off once per week, or maybe even every other week.
This means that the empty store shelf will stay empty for… at least until the supply truck shows up.
And if the bubble is sustained, the local warehouses might get depleted, which means that the resupply won’t happen until the regional warehouse delivers more toilet paper to the local warehouse, etc.
This sudden spike in demand is what creates the shortage – there is still plenty of toilet paper, it’s just not right here, right now.
4. Ongoing Impact
Unfortunately, the demand bubble carries on far past the original event.
When the local shelves eventually get restocked, there are two more waves of stupid.
4.1. Wave 5: “Survivors” Become Hoarders
Folks who HAD NOT hoarded any toilet paper, but might be dangerously low or even out of toilet paper suddenly see some available, and instead of buying just one pack, they might buy two packs or maybe four packs, just in case, and now THEY are hoarding, and contributing to a further shortage.
4.2. Wave 6: Ongoing Stupidity
Some people are just plain stupid, and will presumably continue to hoard toilet paper until their dying breath because they think that’s a thing now.
5. Hoarders: Long Term Outlook
Toilet paper isn’t exactly what I would call a stable item to store long-term.
The entire reason toilet paper exists is that it dissolves easily in water, which is friendly to your plumbing, but not very conducive to long-term storage.
If you’re storing toilet paper and it gets wet, it will basically dissolve. If it gets humid, it will mold.
IF you manage to keep it dry, you still have to contend with rats, mice, and bugs, who all think starchy paper is a delicious meal.
The more toilet paper you have managed to hoard, the bigger the problem gets…
Rumor has it that Pablo Escobar had so much cash stashed all over the place that up to 10% of it would get eaten by rats or destroyed by flooding, resulting in MILLIONS in destroyed currency.
So let’s fast-forward 3 months. All of that toilet paper you hoarded? It’s worthless. Of course, you won’t have to buy toilet paper for a while, but you sure won’t be selling for a profit, and if you bought at elevated prices, you can kiss that money goodbye.
[Edit 3/24/2020] Most stores have already stated that they won’t be accepting returns on toilet paper, bottled water, and other hoarded items.
Fast-forward 1 year. I bet your remaining stock is getting ratty around the edges, unless you stored it properly. Do you really want to wipe with that?
Fast-forward 3 years. If you managed to keep it dry, it’s still probably pretty crumbly. At this point, you’ll probably dump whatever’s left on the curb, just to get rid of it!
So, if you are one of those idiots who hoarded toilet paper:
- It’s worthless
- Even if you give some of it away, you probably won’t use it all before it goes bad
- It’s your brand of stupid that can cause a national crisis – I hope you’re proud of yourself