The end of the roll as we know it: Getting to the bottom of a toilet paper shortage

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As the head of the company that provides Canadians with one-third of their bathroom tissue, Dino Bianco has his finger on, if not exactly the nation’s pulse, the spot where the country’s real anxieties are expressed.

The Kruger Products chief executive officer recalls clearly the moment he began to realize the full implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was late February, heading into a weekend, and a friend texted Bianco to tell him there was no toilet paper in Costco.

“I said: ‘What? That’s very unusual.'”

So Bianco went into a Costco the following Monday to see for himself.

“And I could not believe my own eyes in terms of the lineup of people and every buggy was full of toilet paper,” he said.

“And it dawned on me at that point that we had this wave coming of demand.”

Matters of the heart — and bottom

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and it turns out that’s true not only in matters of the heart but of the bottom as well.

According to Statistics Canada, purchases of toilet paper increased by nearly 250 per cent in March as Ottawa and the provinces started telling Canadians to stay inside.

Toilet paper has been a rare sight on grocery store shelves since Canadians began isolating themselves to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

While the panic buying has slowed down, many store shelves are still empty. To paraphrase the rock band REM: It’s the end of the roll as we know it. But who feels fine?

Bianco says the shortage has likely given all of us new appreciation for a product as overlooked as it is essential — one known in his world as “high involvement, low engagement.”

“It’s one of those products nobody thinks about until they don’t have it. It’s one of those products that everybody has. It’s one of those products that everybody uses. It’s one of those products that doesn’t have an alternative,” he said.

“And it’s a product that you use multiple times a day.”

‘What do I need first?’

Kenn Fischburg is as close as it gets to an expert on toilet paper. The Connecticut man wrote an encyclopedia on the subject, ran his business via a website called toiletpaperworld.com and spent four decades in the industry after taking over his father’s paper-supply business.

He sold the business, but the 70-year-old still buys toilet paper by cases of up to 100 rolls. He bought three cases in advance of the pandemic.

Kenn Fischburg authored an encyclopedia on toilet paper and is as close as it gets to an expert on the topic. He buys his rolls by the case. (YouTube)

“There’s a panic going on, and the panic is from a virus, but it ends up showing up in people’s behaviour. And the panic of not being able to go out of your house, the first thing that shows up in people’s behaviour is ‘What do I need first?'” Fischburg said.

“If there’s anything in your house you do not want to be without, it’s toilet paper.”

Fischburg tells in his book how emperors and royalty once wiped their behinds with rose petals, but common people used corn cobs and the Sears Roebuck catalogue even after American Joseph Gayetty — widely credited as the father of modern toilet paper — patented packs of medicated sheets in 1857.

The Scott brothers of Pennsylvania went on to revolutionize the industry by mass producing paper on rolls in the 1890s. 

But Fischburg says the real breakthrough in terms of customer comfort was made in the 1940s, when a British business introduced the concept of two-ply, soft paper.

Before that, some of the first commercially available toilet paper was marketed as “splinter-free.”

“There are continuous advances in the absorbancy, the softness and the wet strength,” said Fischburg.

“One would say, ‘How much softer and how much more absorbent can you have?’ Well, that’s what they’re doing.”

‘When it’s not in stock it’s very obvious’

The Kruger Paper Company Ltd. was founded in Montreal in 1904 by Joseph Kruger. 

The company operated paper mills in British Columbia and Quebec before buying the Canadian operations of Scott Paper in 1997. 

In 2012, the tissue arm of the business, Kruger Products, went public. They produce Cashmere and Purex bathroom tissue as well as White Cloud.

Toilet paper is a product described in the industry as ‘high involvement, low engagement.’ It’s something everybody uses but few people notice. Until it’s gone. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Bianco says the normal rhythm of the business depends on the “flow” between producers, distributors, retailers and customers.

“Because the product is so bulky, nobody along that process wants to hold too much inventory, so it just flows,” he said.

“So when you get a disruption in demand — with increased demand — it throws it out of sync, and then you’re trying to catch up to it.”

Bianco says the company has seen two sides of the pandemic, because they also make “away from home” supplies — the toilet paper you might find at a mall, a business, a school or any other place of industry. 

Demand for those products has fallen off a cliff, but it’s not quite as simple as substituting one type of production for another. The papers are of different quality and are packaged differently.

Bianco believes customers started running to stores because of a combination of rumours about an Asian tissue shortage and governments warning people to prepare for self-quarantine.

Once people were told they would have to work from home, the purchases went into overdrive.

“And then tissue is such a big, bulky product that when it’s not in stock it’s very obvious. You see a whole aisle empty because the shelves don’t carry a lot,” Bianco said.

“And then I think that just drew more panic buying.”

‘Repeat of history’

It’s not the first time North America has seen a toilet paper crisis.

In 1973, as the United States struggled with an embargo from oil-producing countries, The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson mused about what might be the next product in short supply.

“”You can laugh now, but there is an acute shortage of toilet paper in the good old United States,” Carson joked.

“We gotta quit writing on it.”

A short documentary about the Carson-inspired shortage, The Great Toilet Paper Scare by New York-based filmmaker Brian Gersten, premiered at a film festival in February.

Then COVID-19 shut down all the other festivals where he was hoping his film might show. 

But Gersten has found himself in sudden demand, as The Atlantic magazine featured the documentary and national broadcasters raced to interview him.

WATCH | Short doc The Great Toilet Paper Scare by Brian Gersten

The man and the movie met the moment.

“It’s just totally blown me away. I could have never predicted that the film would find this new relevance,” Gersten said.

“I’m not like a Nostradamus or prophet of toilet paper shortage. It was just a complete accident. And it’s totally astonishing that we are seeing a repeat of history.”

Gersten, who says he has about a week’s worth of his own supply left, said he understands the concept of panic buying. But he’s still not convinced.

“As much as I’ve researched it all, I’m still a confounded and a little confused at people’s desire to buy this stuff up,” he said. 

“There are things called bidets that work just fine. It’s not an essential product, so it’s extraordinarily bizarre to see such a specific and arbitrary shortage.”

‘Like money in the bank’

As far as the most recent shortage is concerned, Bianco says there was never really a problem on the supply side, but demand has increased drastically.

He says tissue production has “ramped up” to meet the excess need, but the nature of the capital-heavy industry means that crews were already working to nearly full capacity before the pandemic.

COVID-19 sent panic buyers to the stores in search of toilet paper. Producers say they believe supplies will catch up in the near future. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

They’re producing toilet paper around the clock, but also have to cope with the added challenges of physical distancing. It could be weeks, it could be months before supply meets demand. Like so many other elements of life in the COVID-19 era, the future is uncertain.

“I think what you’re going to see in toilet paper is that as people start getting more comfortable and seeing the shelves full most if not all of the time, you’ll start getting back to normal behaviour,” Bianco said.

“Eventually, you’ll get back to your pattern of buying, but it’ll take some time to convince the consumer that it’s here and it’s good and it’s going to last.”

In the meantime, Fischburg, the toilet paper guru, says he’s handing out spare rolls to neighbours and seniors. 

He advises others to follow his lead and buy by the case when things get back to normal.

“It’s like money in the bank,” he said.

Given his position, Bianco says he thinks most people are embarrassed to ask him if he can spare a square. 

But he has let his friends know he’s there to help in a pinch.

“Not that I have access to a lot,” he said. But he does have access to a little, and one or two acquaintances have “happened to be” in the neighbourhood of late.

“They opened up the trunk,” he said, “and got a package or two out of me.”

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