It’s hard to think of a year when “toilet paper” appeared in headlines as much as it did during 2020. Then again, the past 10 months have been anything but typical.
Throughout the pandemic, high demand for toilet paper has made it difficult to find. Images of empty store shelves have become commonplace on social media. More so than a lack of flour or disinfecting wipes, the inability to get an item as essential as toilet paper has created a stir because it undermines assumptions about what it means to be an American in the 21st century. It robs people of their right to wipe.
“Toilet paper represents our civilization,” Marcia Mogelonsky, director of insight for Mintel’s food and drink division, proclaimed in a blog post published in May.
Shortages of the stuff have spurred shoppers to seek alternatives and try options they may have never considered before—or even knew existed. North American interest in bidets sold by upstarts such as Tushy and Poo-Pourri, for instance, has never been higher. The same goes for direct-to-consumer toilet paper brands that are better for the planet.
The roll goes empty
Restrictions on schools, offices and restaurants throughout the public health crisis have led to an increase in people studying, working and eating at home. This, in turn, has driven shoppers to fill their carts with toilet paper on a routine basis.
Georgia-Pacific, the maker of Angel Soft and Quilted Northern, calculates that the average U.S. household uses 409 rolls of toilet paper per year. If everyone stays at home around the clock—which has more or less been the case for a while now—that number increases by 40%.
When the Covid-19 outbreak first hit in March, year-over-year sales of toilet paper leaped 90% compared to the same time last year, amounting to $1.7 billion, according to Nielsen.
Hoarding became enough of an issue that Kimberly-Clark’s Cottonelle brand ran an ad campaign encouraging people to #ShareASquare. “Instead of stockpiling toilet paper, let’s stock up on generosity,” stated a 30-second TV spot.
While purchases cooled in the summer months, a rise in coronavirus cases in the fall corresponded with another rush to buy toilet paper. And just like the first round of panic buying, retailers are once again having trouble meeting demand. Walmart, for example, is struggling to keep some stores stocked, John Furner, CEO of Walmart U.S., told analysts during an earnings call last month. Grocers such as Kroger and H-E-B have reinstated limits on how many rolls customers can take home per visit.
Shoppers search for a better way
At present, the toilet paper business is largely controlled by three companies: Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark and Georgia-Pacific, owned by Koch Industries. Last year, the category generated $9.7 billion in the U.S. alone, according to Euromonitor International.
While people might have purchased the same brand of toilet paper at their local grocery store for the past 20 years, scarcity coupled with the widespread adoption of buying household staples online has opened shoppers up to a universe of possibilities. Web searches for toilet paper-related keywords and phrases reached an all-time high in March, according to market intelligence company SimilarWeb. The average monthly search between April and November has been 566% higher than the months prior to March.
The shift in consumer behavior has benefited young brands such as No.2, which makes toilet paper out of bamboo—a more renewable resource than trees due to the shorter time it takes to grow to full height. Samira Far, who founded No.2 last year, said people who took to the internet at the outset of the pandemic “all of a sudden became very educated on the fact that there are multiple different kinds of toilet paper.”