If there’s one image that captures the panic seeping through the United States this week, it might be the empty store shelves where toilet paper usually sits.
Shoppers, preparing for the possibility that the coronavirus could keep them quarantined for weeks or months, have been snapping up every roll they can find. The more images of stockpiling that emerged on social media, the more panicky buying that ensued. The result: The household staple has been consistently out of stock, whether at big box stores, at bodegas or on Amazon.
In an age of instant shopping gratification and same-day delivery, the idea that something so mundane could be unavailable seemed downright scary, and an ominous sign that a basic supply chain is under stress because of the pandemic.
But is there really a toilet paper shortage?
Major retailers say toilet paper hasn’t been out of stock in stores for more than a day or two, or even a few hours. Manufacturers, paper industry executives say, are raising production to meet demand, but there is only so much capacity that they can or are willing to add.
They want to satisfy panic buying without going overboard and creating a glut on the market when the surge subsides.
Unlike some other products, toilet paper is not likely to be used more by Americans who are stricken with respiratory symptoms, even as the coronavirus spreads.
“You are not using more of it. You are just filling up your closet with it,” said Jeff Anderson, president of Precision Paper Converters, a paper product manufacturer with 65 employees outside Green Bay, Wis. “What happens in the summer when demand dries up and people have all this extra product in their homes?”
Mr. Anderson’s business focuses on facial tissues, which are also in high demand, and he is paying employees overtime to work longer shifts. “We can’t make as much as they want right now,” he said.
Perhaps more than in its recent past, the paper industry seems well positioned to meet the surging demand. After decades of declining sales, as newspapers and printed documents lost out in the digital age, many manufacturers converted to making tissue products, like toilet paper and wipes. That means there is more manufacturing capacity that can be brought online.
But toilet paper is typically made to order. Because it takes up so much room, storing large quantities is not profitable, so the industry typically has only a few months of inventory on hand.
“There is not some big underground warehouse like in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’ where there is all this toilet paper sitting around in case it is needed,” said Dan Clarahan, president of United Converting, which sells manufacturing equipment to tissue companies.
In more normal times, toilet paper demand grows by only a few percentage points each year, mirroring population growth.
Asked about the shortages, many retailers would not commit to a specific timetable for when the shelves would be restocked, calling the situation “fluid.” A retail analyst, Burt Flickinger of Strategic Resource Group, said big box retailers like Costco and BJ’s Wholesale Club have been able to restock most empty shelves within a few hours, or by the next morning, according to his survey of hundreds of stores across the country this week.
But it’s clear that the retailers, even those with experience in dealing with crisis-related demand before a hurricane or a blizzard, are being tested as demand surges across the country all at once.
Walmart said it was adjusting its supply routes to keep up. The company is picking up many high-demand products at factories and shipping them in trucks directly to stores, bypassing regional distribution centers.
Even President Trump acknowledged the frenzied buying, standing in the Rose Garden on Friday next to the executives of major retailers including Walmart.
“Toilet paper is not an effective way to prevent getting the coronavirus, but they’re selling out,” he said.
People have been sharing images of toilet paper shortages and other empty shelves at Giant Eagle, a private grocery chain that has more than 400 locations and is based in Pittsburgh.
The chain said it had been working to increase the frequency of deliveries of “essential items” to stores and asked corporate employees to assist in stores, where other employees are stocking shelves and fulfilling curbside pickup and delivery orders.
All Giant Eagles have begun to temporarily limit toilet paper purchases to three packages per customer, Dick Roberts, a company spokesman, said in an email.
The vast majority of toilet paper consumed by Americans is made in North America. But about 10 percent of the giant rolls of paper that are used to make the rolls that end up in American bathrooms come from China and India. Those imports have been delayed because of the broader bottleneck of shipments from Asia, as the region begins to recover from the virus outbreak and factories come back online.
Joe Raccuia, chief executive of Morcon Tissue, which makes toilet paper in plants across the United States, said his supplier in Mexico had warned him about delays.
“It’s a matter of weeks, not months,” said Mr. Raccuia, who sells his toilet paper mostly to hotels and restaurants.
It’s not just toilet paper that people are stockpiling, of course. Weeks ago, there were shortages of hand sanitizer. By Friday, the panic buying had extended to bottled water and thermometers.
Popular thermometers, like those sold under the Vicks brand, were listed as out of stock on the websites of retailers like Target, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens and Staples.
Even on Amazon, the options were grim. For example, a Vicks ComfortFlex thermometer that was listed for about $10 on Walmart’s website was being sold by two sellers on Amazon for at least $40, and could not be delivered for at least a week — a far cry from Amazon’s usual advantages on price and speed.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.