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Toilet paper gives strength to face crisis

Derided as panic, the rush on toilet paper was actually people preparing for a challenge in a fundamental way.

A production line with rolls of toilet paper rolling down it.
Because toilet paper is a high-volume, low cost item, it tends to be produced locally, like potato chips. Much of Chicago’s supply comes from Green Bay.
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As the COVID-19 global pandemic unfolds, and the confusing whir of current events slowly gives way to the certainties of history, one question will echo down the years, fascinating scholars yet unborn:

What was the deal with toilet paper?

With a deadly plague spreading everywhere, consumers stripped stores, not of batteries or booze, coffee or toothpaste.

But toilet paper. In enormous, cart-filling mega-packs.

And not just in the United States. Australian media described a toilet paper “frenzy” where shoppers pulled knives on each other. In Hong Kong, armed robbers stole pallets of TP. Shelves were stripped in Singapore and Taiwan.

Journalists quizzed those buying the paper for their perspective.

“If everyone’s doing it, I’m doing it, too,” one Sydney shopper reasoned.

The world seemed divided into people either loading up on what was called “therapeutic paper” when it was first patented in 1857, or condemning those who did so for panicking.

It struck me there had to be a third path to understanding. There had to be someone wise. Someone oracular. Someone who knows toilet paper.

“It has been a crazy couple of weeks as related to toilet paper purchasing,” said Kim Sackey. She is consumer knowledge leader at Georgia-Pacific and was speaking from the global headquarters in Atlanta of one of the world’s leading manufacturers of what the company demurely calls “bath tissue.”

A smiling woman in a red jacket.
Kim Sackey, consumer knowledge leader for Georgia-Pacific’s Consumer Product Business Affairs division, says buying toilet paper is one way consumers prepare to face the world.
Provided

Why toilet paper?

“It’s such a huge category, an $11 billion category,” she said. “Household penetration of over 90%.”

At least. According to market research, penetration — the number of households that own a particular product — is 96% for toilet paper. Sackey suspects the true figure is even higher.

“Vendors track volume, look at things on a 12-month basis. Some households are very small households, light users,” she said. “They buy very large packs and stock up, and so are not reflected in the purchase cycle ... It’s considered a household essential. People have FORO.”

FORO?

“Fear of Running Out.”

Do they ever. Why?

“For several reasons,” Sackey said. “First, there aren’t many alternatives. If you run out of green beans, you can go without green beans. There are a lot of things you can substitute. There really aren’t a lot of substitutes for toilet paper.”

Not anymore. Throughout history, however, there have been a wide variety, from brine-soaked sponges on sticks in ancient Roman bathrooms to leaves, snow, stones, corncobs or newspapers. (Note to Sun-Times marketing department: Could we bring this usage back? Let’s see the internet do THAT.)

“Second, it’s such an intimate choice,” continued Sackey. “Something that touches your body. People feel a strong connection. It really ladders up to a pretty important emotional benefit for consumers. People say, ‘I need to have it.’”

Do they ever. But why?

“Why is it such an essential? Because it is critical for people to have that confidence they’re clean,” Sackey said. “When people have the right toilet paper, they know they can ‘get the job done.’ They’re ready to face the world. People want that confidence, want that assurance, that it’s safe to be around other people.”

Georgia-Pacific reports that since the pandemic began, demand for toilet paper has doubled. If people are buying twice what they actually need, that leads to the obvious next question: Just how much toilet paper do people need?

“The average consumer goes through 100 rolls a year,” Sackey said. The government uses an even higher figure. The U.S. Census counts an average household of 2.6 people using 409 regular rolls a year.

Which can cast a softer light on those carts filled with toilet paper: people do rip through the stuff.

Though that depends on who those people are. Women, to put it bluntly, use much more toilet paper than men, and for a simple reason.

“Women use more, and it’s driven by the fact that they go more,” Sackey said. “Women have more occasions [to use toilet paper] per day than men: 6.5 for women versus 3.7 for men. The actual amount used isn’t different: both using six sheets on average per occasion.”

Which leads me to wonder — lowering into a defensive crouch and covering my head as I do — why women go to the bathroom almost twice as often as men? Whoops, space is running out. Saved by the bell. (I suspect the answer has to do with babies. Discuss among yourselves.)