We May Have Discovered the Real Reason Behind the Toilet Paper Shortage

Here's why you can't find toilet paper anywhere.

The Charmins, Cottonelles and Quilted Northerns of the world are cranking out rolls as fast as possible, yet paper product aisles are still looking sparse in many parts of the country. Not to mention, nearly every online retailer is sold out, which has many Americans asking, "Why—and where—has all the toilet paper gone?"

Toilet paper purchases jumped 213% year over year in the week of March 14, according to Nielsen data, as Americans stocked up to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, many fascinating psychological theories have been proposed as to why toilet paper became such a hot commodity, including:

  • Having enough toilet paper gives us sense of control over one thing, with our family's needs being at least met at a very basic level.
  • When humans sense fear, they turn outward and adapt by mimicking the behavior of others (or looking in others' shopping carts, in this instance).
  • If people are unsure of how long (or how severe) stay at home orders will be, they want to over-prepare.
  • If shelves begin to look empty, we have a natural tendency to snag one of what's left, similar to a discount that's a "limited-time offer."

As we begin to unroll more of the data, though, a fascinating answer arises about the shortage. Most people are not, in fact, panic buying. It all boils down to the fact that we're all spending more time at home, Will Oremus from Medium reported after discussions with several paper industry pros.

toilet paper aisle in a store with empty shelves
Getty / Anna Elias

Perhaps you noticed the difference between the thin, scratchier paper at work and the thicker, plusher rolls at home? Businesses, schools and other public buildings receive commercial bulk toilet paper, and there's an entirely different market for consumers.

Since we're all spending way more time at home and more than 90 percent of Americans are hunkering down due to stay at home or shelter in place mandates, we actually need more rolls per day to cover our butts (sorry).

Pre-coronavirus, most toilet paper companies were already churning out rolls 24/7, according to CNN, and many have already increased output by 20 percent or more. That still doesn't close the commercial market gap, though. One of the largest paper product manufacturers in the U.S., Georgia-Pacific, guesses that a typical home will go through 40 percent more toilet paper than usual when kids are home from school and parents aren't at work or out and about.

While it sounds easy to allocate commercial rolls for consumer purposes, it's actually quite complicated to build those new relationships and switch supply chain processes. While there will still be enough toilet paper for all, there's not likely to be a solution to this two-market TP challenge—or fully-stocked shelves—any time soon.

So our solution for those seeking to restock? Shop early, as supermarkets often restock overnight. And keep your eyes peeled for local restaurants or other outlets who are offering bulk sales (or free rolls with your to-go order!) from their suppliers.

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