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'40 per cent increase': Why the toilet paper shortage continues

It has been weeks since toilet paper aisles across Australia were left empty as a result of the spread of the novel coronavirus and premature fears of an impending lockdown.

In response, supermarkets across Australia have put in measures to ensure all customers have access to toilet paper.

But last week Woolworths CEO Brad Banducci said the supermarket giant had sold 20.5 million rolls, almost double the normal demand.

Associate Professor Jana Bowden, from Macquarie University’s Department of Marketing, said there was a “mixed situation” as to why there was still an increase in demand.

“The market is aware there is a significant increase in demand beyond normal,” Assoc Prof Bowden told Yahoo News Australia.

Empty toilet roll shelves at a supermarket in March, as coronavirus spread in Australia and more Australians started working from home. Source: Getty
Empty toilet roll shelves at a supermarket in March, as coronavirus spread in Australia and more Australians started working from home. Source: Getty

More need for loo paper as people stay home

The main reason why there is an increase in demand is because most of Australia is staying at home.

“Now we have a situation where families are at home, not just one or two people, but sometimes significant family sizes with lots of children, using increased amounts of product beyond what they would have used in previous situations, when we’re not in lockdown,” Assoc Prof Bowden said.

Most Australians are working from home, so they aren’t in the office using the restrooms there and the toilet paper supplied.

coronavirus
coronavirus

Due to social-distancing restrictions, people are limiting their time out of the house, thus increasing the “natural demand” of toilet paper within the home and not at shopping centres or restaurants.

“Instead of using the commercially-supplied toilet paper, which we have been when we have been going out and living our normal daily lives, using all the different services we use [pre-lockdown], we’re now only using the consumer retail produced toilet paper,” the marketing expert said.

Assoc Prof Bowden said there was a suggestion there was “around a 40 per cent increase in daily average use of toilet paper at home” due to everyone staying home.

This aligns with what Mr Banducci said on Thursday in an update to Woolworths customers, noting it had been seven weeks since there was a surge in demand.

“Demand for toilet paper finally appears to be tapering, with this week’s sales expected to be around 15-16 million rolls,” the supermarket boss wrote.

“That’s still 45 per cent up on last year, but with supply up 70 per cent on last year, there is increasingly more on-shelf.”

Supermarkets have been struggling to keep up with demand for products such as toilet paper as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in people purchasing far more than usual. Source: AAP
Supermarkets have been struggling to keep up with demand for products such as toilet paper as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic which resulted in people purchasing far more than usual. Source: AAP

Coles chief operations officer Matthew Swindells said in March customers had bought up the equivalent of three Christmases worth of stock in a matter of weeks amid the coronavirus pandemic, without the usual six months the company has to prepare.

"It's not a problem of supply, it's a problem of demand," Mr Swindells told the Seven Network last month.

“Our supply chain team have worked incredibly hard over the past five weeks to move stock into our stores, with volumes way above what we would ordinarily see at Christmas – which is ordinarily our busiest time of year,” a Coles spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia on Friday.

Assoc Prof Bowden said supermarkets had now “moved into this situation where the producers are still trying to produce much more, the supermarkets are trying to improve their logistics and distribution systems, but we now have this significant increase in natural household demand”.

A Coles spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia they had worked with suppliers to maximise their production by ordering products they can make the fastest and prioritised certain packs of toilet paper.

“We’ve also prioritised small- and medium-pack sizes so that we can get more packs into each delivery” the spokesperson said.

“For example, we can get about 100 x four-pack rolls of toilet paper on a shipping pallet, compared to just 20 packs containing 20 rolls each.”

Stockpiling out of fear of missing out

Assoc Prof Bowden explains the lockdown has not only led to an increased demand in consumer toilet paper. There would be more demand for the two, three and four ply you buy for your home and less demand for the one-ply toilet paper commonly used in the commercial sector, she says.

Around the world, people stockpile toilet paper in response to growing fears the coronavirus would spread.

“There was panic buying originally and it was because there was this idea there wasn’t going to be enough supply,” she said.

“People were genuinely stockpiling out of fear.”

People awaiting their turn to purchase toilet paper, paper towel and pasta at Coles Supermarket, Epping in Sydney, Friday, March 20, 2020. Source: AAP
People awaiting their turn to purchase toilet paper, paper towel and pasta at Coles, Epping in Sydney, Friday, March 20, 2020. Source: AAP

In response to the panic buying supermarkets implemented limits on how many packs of toilet paper, and other essential items, customers can purchase.

Despite this, Assoc Prof Bowden says there will still be a certain level of panic buying going on.

There is no way of policing people going to multiple stores and buying however many packets of toilet paper they may need at different stores.

Back in the heyday of panic buying, which start just a few weeks ago, people were doing it to gain a sense of security and control, Assoc Prof Bowden explains.

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