When the history of the coronavirus pandemic is written, the vanishing of toilet paper might rank as just a footnote in an otherwise dark and frightening account. But it might be a very long, complex and even wise footnote, because toilet paper — or rather, the lack of it — turns out to reveal a great deal about who we are and how we behave in a crisis.
It showed David Cohen something about the nature of humanity: As a checkout guy at a supermarket in Asheville, N.C., he saw people buying absurd amounts of toilet paper, but he also saw people reach the cashier’s counter and decide suddenly to consider those who have less.
“Some people said, ‘Wait, I’m going to put these rolls back on the shelf so somebody else can get some,’” said Cohen, who was happy to wait while his customers made a quick return visit to Aisle 14.
It inspired Leslie Klein to poetry: “The store shelves are bare of necessities / Fear took the helm driving shopping to insanity / So, a cushion of paper gives a sense of security.” Klein, an artist — and poet, if she didn’t already know it — in West Stockbridge, Mass., isn’t finding any rolls in her local stores, but she’s been cheered to find that a sort of underground market in TP info has developed.
“Friends pass along hot tips,” she said. “Like, ‘You can find some wholesale at this place.’ It’s something people really feel they can’t do without.”
It confirmed Ronald Blumer’s view that “people have deep emotional connections to what goes into and comes out of our bodies. It sounds highfalutin, but it’s part of your being.”
Blumer, a writer in Manhattan who actually wrote a book about toilet paper in 2013, managed to find a stash of the stuff the other day in, of all places, a little hardware store. “People don’t know they carry it, so they still have some,” he said. “Or maybe it’s because it’s not the best TP. Single-ply, oh dear!”
It has become something of an obsession. You can’t find it at your local market, which can’t get nearly enough from its distributors, which are getting their normal supply from the manufacturers, which isn’t remotely sufficient.
The economics and logistics of the problem are a bit controversial, though there are good and plentiful theories to explain why your favorite supermarket’s bland assurance that “more is on the way” — Google finds more than half a million hits for that bit of corporate hype about the easing of the TP shortage — is misleading.
Fleets of experts, working from home, already are examining the question from as many perspectives as a university has departments. The quants — who have studied “the toilet paper problem” for years, asking why some people in public restrooms take from the larger, fuller roll while others, known as “little choosers,” use the roll that’s closer to empty — are focused on why the supply chain has broken down. Psychologists are curious why TP — not exactly essential to sustaining human life — ranks right up there with milk and bread in our panic-buying behaviors. Social historians look at why people came to view toilet tissue as vital when it didn’t even become a household staple until the 1940s.
All of which is interesting enough, but doesn’t bring you any closer to scoring an eight-pack of Charmin Mega Ultra Strong or the elusive brick of Cottonelle Ultra ComfortCare. Or even a roll or two of the scratchy, see-through, single-ply cheap stuff.
The problem, like the virus that spawned it, is global. In Australia, a cafe began accepting rolls of TP as payment — a cup of coffee will run you three rolls. In Hong Kong, armed crooks held up a supermarket; all they took was 600 rolls of the soft stuff. A pet store in Dornburg, Germany, last week set up an outdoor toilet paper drive-through in a parking lot when the owner was able to obtain a massive shipment.
Nothing seems to be unspooling in the right direction for a commodity that rarely gets much attention: In Hutchins, Tex., a tractor-trailer hauling a full load of toilet paper crashed and burned last week on Interstate 20. Rolls, most charred or reduced to cinders, splayed all over, shutting down the roadway.
Demand is as flush as supply is bare. Americans have spent $1.4 billion on toilet paper in the past four weeks, a 102 percent increase from the same period a year before, according to data collected by IRI, which tracks retail sales based on the bar codes on products. (Prices have been quite stable over that time.) Only hand sanitizers, disinfectant wipes and the like have seen substantially bigger sales boosts.
But toward the end of March, TP sales plummeted because the supply just wasn’t there.
(Only one category of products found in grocery stores saw sales go down last week compared with a year earlier — energy drinks. Whether people are working from home or not working, they’re apparently not needing nearly as much of a boost to get through the day.)
So why do the TP shelves remain great banks of emptiness more than a month after many stores reported that customers were hoarding the stuff?
The leading theories are:
1. We’re buying too much toilet paper because we’re panicked there won’t be any when we need it.
2. We’re actually using way more than usual at home because most people are sheltering in place rather than using the facilities while at work, school, restaurants or other public places.
“The third theory is that both of those are right,” said Doug Baker, vice president at the Food Industry Association, which represents retailers, distributors and producers — the whole chain of businesses from the factory to you.
It’s a three-part problem, Baker said. Part One, hoarding: “We have actual situations across the country where people are buying an entire case,” he said. “Demand became unprecedented and still is.”
That’s something the industry knows well — customers regularly wipe out the toilet paper aisle ahead of big snowstorms and hurricanes, and the system can quickly rebound. But this crisis has tested limits because the spike in demand is nationwide, has been going on for some time, and is open-ended.
Part Two, displacement. The same number of people have the same need for toilet paper. But the industry is not set up for a wholesale move from work and school to home; home TP is softer, packaged in smaller rolls and is made and distributed by different companies than are the jumbo rolls seen in offices, institutional settings and public restrooms.
Part Three, adapting on the fly. Baker said the industry is changing, fast. Manufacturers have added hours at the factories and last week, the companies that make the industrial stuff made a deal with the country’s big food distributors to get their product into grocery stores.
But it’s not as simple as putting the big commercial rolls onto trucks. Most industrial rolls don’t have bar codes on the package, so stores have trouble stocking them. They’re adapting by putting little code stickers, like the ones stuck onto pieces of fruit, on the commercial rolls.
Grocers contend that, as Ira Kress, interim president of Giant Food, put it: “There is not a supply shortage, but it does take some time for the manufacturing process and our supply chain to catch up from the significant spike in demand.”
Giant’s suppliers “are shipping far more product to us than normal, but we are also selling far more product than normal,” Kress said. “Please only purchase what you need for this week as opposed to stocking up.”
It is unlikely the shortages will go away soon.
“We’ll eventually get there,” Baker said. “We need the machines to keep going. And we need to have sales abate. It could take multiple weeks.”
Ideally, that won’t lead to too much misbehavior by the TP-desperate. Black markets in the stuff have developed in the past. In the 1990s, a manager at Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium stole $34,000 worth of toilet paper, leaving the ballpark short before an Eagles football game. The manager was fired after investigators determined he had been ordering double loads of toilet paper and reselling much of it. The scandal led a city official to deliver this legendary quote to a local reporter: “Man, he really wiped that stadium clean.”
Blumer, who also has written books on sweat, pee and belly buttons, said that the modern notion that TP is essential was created by the companies that first sold Americans on using the product in the 1940s.
“They had to convince people to use it,” he said. “They had an enormous ad campaign that terrified women, with surgeons with gloves and scalpels saying, ‘It’s a pity she didn’t buy her husband proper toilet paper.’”
In an emergency, today’s consumers could revert to using newspaper or book pages as their grandparents did, Blumer said. Or they could use bidets, which shoot jets of water to clean instead of paper — actually, toilet paper is mostly water, which is blended in the manufacturing process with pressure-cooked wood chips. Bidets, common in much of the world, never made big inroads into the U.S. market, but sales here have surged in recent weeks, according to makers of the devices.
But Blumer admits that a turn away from paper is unlikely in a society that many say has, like its TP, grown softer with each passing generation.
Decades of seemingly absurd television commercials portraying toilet paper as a cuddly buddy have seeped into the popular consciousness. So now, in the opening image of Philadelphia rapper Tierra Whack’s latest song, a plaintive cry about being “sick of being stuck in the house,” a turtle nuzzles up against rolls of toilet paper, which Whack gingerly removes from safekeeping in the fridge, like priceless gems hidden away, a secret protection against the dark forces that threaten us all.