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The case of the missing toilet paper: How the coronavirus exposed U.S. supply chain flaws
TEXAS (From news reports) -- Before executives at paper-goods giant Kimberly-Clark rushed to shut their offices on Friday the 13th of March, they convened for one last emergency meeting. Commuting home that final time, Arist Mastorides, president of family care for North America, stopped at his local Walmart, on the edge of Lake Winnebago in Neenah, Wis., to see the emergency firsthand. Mastorides oversees toilet paper brands like Cottonelle and Scott, but that evening he could find none of his own products. "A long gondola shelf that's completely empty of bathroom and facial tissue, I never in my life thought I would ever see that," he says. "That's a very unsettling thing."

Indeed, that week will be remembered for the Great Toilet Paper Panic of 2020. The previous day, March 12, TP sales had ballooned 734% compared with the same day the previous year, becoming the top-selling product at grocery stores by dollars spent, according to NCSolutions, which tracks consumer packaged goods (CPG). As shoppers prepared to hunker down at home indefinitely to avoid the coronavirus, they wiped Amazon, then supermarkets across America, clean of the bathroom basic. People might need as much as 40% more toilet paper at home for "occasions" (as the industry calls them) that would otherwise happen at workplaces, restaurants, or hotels. But they bought far more: Sales were up nearly 71% year over year in the nine weeks through May 2, according to Nielsen. They would have risen even higher--except that people can't find enough toilet paper to buy.

At first, experts waved off concerns about shortages. A Wall Street Journal editorial on March 22 declared, "There is one fear we can alleviate: the idea that America is running out of toilet paper." But much of America did, in fact, run out. By March 23, toilet paper was out of stock at 70% of U.S. grocery stores (including online sellers). "When everybody forward-buys, then you do create a shortage. Perception becomes reality," says Pete Guarraia, who heads consultancy Bain's global supply-chain practice.

Some two months into the pandemic, the white stuff remains scarce. All types of Charmin are indefinitely "unavailable" on Amazon.com; Costco has suspended TP shipping "due to limited supply." "It's not like there's troves of it sitting in warehouses that we didn't get to stores," says Dan Toporek, a spokesperson for Walmart. "There's just truly such high demand it's hard to have in stock anywhere." For more, click here.

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