Toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other hygiene essentials began flying off store shelves weeks ago amid mounting worries over the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Not to worry, retailers and suppliers said, we’re churning out product and cranking up inventory to meet demand.
So where is it? A week into an unprecedented statewide stay-home order aimed at keeping hospitals from being overwhelmed with patients, consumers throughout California and beyond are still finding empty store shelves when they look for things such as toilet paper, paper towels, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer.
“The ultimate question everyone wants to know is when will the store shelves be restocked,” said Eric Abercrombie, a spokesman for Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific, one of the world’s leading producers of toilet paper and paper towels. “And unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for you on that.”
In fact, nobody seems to — not the stores, not the suppliers, and certainly not hordes of people sharing their woes on social media #toiletpapercrisis.
“Some people aren’t shaking hands because of Coronavirus,” read one tweet. “I’m not shaking hands because everyone is out of toilet paper.”
— Janis Neufeld (@jsneufeld) March 26, 2020
Georgia-Pacific’s mills and regional distribution centers last week shipped out 120 percent of their normal capacity, Abercrombie said.
“We’re breaking some production records,” he said. “We’re trying to crank it out fast as we can.”
But you wouldn’t know it after visiting local supermarkets and pharmacies, where some aisles look like something you’d imagine in communist Cuba or Venezuela.
In tech-savvy California, where everyone’s accustomed to being able to buy anything with a few taps on their iPhone — online e-tailers are no help. Search Amazon and it shows a 36-roll pack of Angel Soft that when you try to add it to your e-cart, is unavailable. The earliest you can get 10 rolls of Treesolo 3-ply is April 16.
Major grocery chains offered little in the way of encouragement on the outlook for retail supply.
“We ship deliveries to our stores on a regular basis, and many high-demand items are purchased shortly after restocking on shelves,” said Wendy Gutshall, spokeswoman for the Northern California Division of Safeway. “We are working with our supplier partners to refill high-demand products as quickly as possible. We are asking customers to respect quantity limits on select products, like hand sanitizers, household cleaners and other staple items to help ensure more of our neighbors can find the products they need.”
Gutshall acknowledged that “we don’t have customer limitations in place” on purchases of high-demand items like toilet paper — it’s honor system — but said Safeway has “adjusted store hours to give our teams the time they need to restock shelves and get ready to serve the community.”
Raley’s spokeswoman Chelsea Minor said, “Unfortunately, I do not have an answer” as to when the TP will be plentiful in its stores again.
“We are working with our suppliers to get more product,” Minor said. “Also, we are regional — we don’t have the same buying power as the bigger chains.”
Procter & Gamble, the Ohio company that also is a major toilet paper producer, said they too are working around the clock to meet the surge in demand.
“Demand continues to outpace supply, but we are working diligently to get product to our retailers as fast as humanly possible so everyone can continue to Enjoy the Go,” said Proctor & Gamble spokesman Loren Fanroy. “We are prioritizing our bestselling sizes to maximize the amount of product we can ship to retailers, and we remain focused on making sure our products are available when and where people shop during this highly dynamic situation. We continue to manufacture and ship Charmin to our retailers.”
Oakland-based Clorox, which makes a number of sanitizing products such as disinfecting wipes that have vanished from stores, along with toilet paper and paper towels, had no immediate response Thursday.
Why toilet paper disappeared from stores is a frustrating mystery for government and health officials trying to manage the pandemic crisis and prevent consumer panic. Unlike disinfecting wipes, or paper towels soaked in bleach, toilet paper doesn’t kill the coronavirus, and the COVID-19 disease is a respiratory infection, not a stomach bug that necessitates frequent trips to the bathroom.
But perhaps the hoarders who cleared the shelves clued in that as more and more workers were doing their jobs from home, their household demand would increase.
Georgia-Pacific indicates that according to consumer survey and U.S. Census data, the average U.S. household of 2.6 people uses 409 regular rolls per year. The company calculated people staying at home around the clock would increase daily usage about 140 percent. To last two weeks, G-P said, a two-person household would need nine double rolls and a four-person household would need 17.
Good luck finding it.