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Toilet paper supply data reveals no shortage during pandemic

Stores can't seem to keep toilet paper in stock during the COVID-19 crisis, but data from a paper industry analytics system shows there isn't actually a two-ply supply issue.

No, most toilet paper consumed in North America doesn't come from China.

And, no, there isn't a toilet paper supply shortage, despite the empty paper product shelves at your local supermarket.

These and other useful insights in a time of pandemic come from a pulp and paper industry analytics and business intelligence program called FisherSolve Next, from paper industry BI consulting firm Fisher International.

The newly cloud-based platform is the latest iteration and first SaaS version of a 30-year-old software program from Fisher that first appeared on floppy disks during the IBM PC era.

Fisher recently developed a new module that it's giving out free to clients that tracks 10 different metrics associated with the spread of the coronavirus state by state, province by province, country by country, on a monthly basis.

The analytics of toilet paper

FisherSolve Next power user Bruce Janda, a senior consultant for Fisher based in Green Bay, Wis., employed the system's data visualization tools to illustrate a recent blog post about the perceived COVID-19 toilet paper supply shortage.

Janda's job is mainly showing Fisher clients how to best use the platform to surface insights about efficiency in their business operations and how well they compare to competitors.

Janda, who holds 19 tissue and paper-related patents and writes a regular column for Tissue World Magazine, laughed when he noted that industry insiders prefer not to use the word "toilet" when they refer to the rolls of paper used in home and office bathrooms.

"Most people in the world say 'bath tissue,'" Janda said. "But there's nothing about a bath we do with the paper. English is a rich language, so we use both."

The pandemic toilet paper supply problem isn't the first such shortage. Legendary late-night TV host and comedian Johnny Carson famously quipped about a shortage and may have inadvertently triggered one in 1973, Janda pointed out.

A crisis, and hoarding

"This time it's not a joke, it's a real crisis," Janda said. "Tissue hoarding has legs and we keep hearing reports about it week after week, although common sense says there has to be enough tissue out there."

Fisher runs an extensive market research and intelligence operation that combs through public records and data sources such as news reports and corporate financial reports for information about manufacturing plant production of paper and chemicals around the world.

toilet paper

All that data undergirds the FisherSolve Next platform. Over the last few years, Fisher employees laboriously ported the historical data to the cloud-based system, which was released in early 2019, and continue to update the platform with new data.

Fisher's customers include manufacturers, suppliers of capital equipment and chemicals used to make toilet paper, paper towels and cardboard, as well as large-scale retail and commercial paper product consumers.

Toilet paper supply chain

According to that data, illustrated in a heat map Janda created with FisherSolve Next in about five minutes, tissue and towel production capacity is distributed fairly evenly across North America.

Also, Janda said, consumption levels of toilet paper historically have stayed remarkably stable at about 100 rolls per U.S. consumer per year, and not subject to regional or time-of-year fluctuations.

Tissue hoarding has legs and we keep hearing reports about it week after week, although common sense says there has to be enough tissue out there.
Bruce JandaSenior consultant, Fisher International

During the pandemic and its lockdowns, people aren't using more toilet paper. They're just hoarding it as a sort of coping mechanism, Janda said.

Because of the steady demand pattern, tissue and paper manufacturers are not accustomed to reconfiguring supply and distribution patterns, Janda said. It's hard for them to rapidly increase production, though that's what they've been doing for the last few months, and as a result, hoarding-induced shortages should end soon, he said.

"Their production was very predictable, and their supply chains were very optimized," he said. "You can't just shock the system from hoarding everything from a month's [worth], to, I've seen, 10 years' worth."

Toilet paper supply made in the USA

One widely spread rumor had people believe that most toilet paper originates in China and that supply chain disruptions in China led to the paper outages in the U.S. Actually, the U.S. produces 90% of its own toilet paper, according to Popular Science magazine.

Another interesting perspective Janda revealed using the analytics platform is that Italy, the country outside China hit hardest by the virus at the start of the pandemic, has long been a net exporter of toilet paper.

Now, with the Italian toilet paper supply crippled, importers of Italian tissue in the Middle East and Africa are likely to see diminished shipments, Janda said.

Vertical market-oriented analytics software platforms from specialty vendors, like FisherSolve Next, are plentiful across a variety of industries, said Donald Farmer, an analyst and founder of the TreeHive Strategy consultancy in Woodinville, Ore.

A notable analytics and BI platform of this genre is Nulogy, a Toronto-based vendor of a platform for contract packaging, repackaging and supply chain.

Some of these vertical applications can be compelling for users in narrowly defined industries, Farmer said, and often sprout from the intellectual capital that experts in those industries have developed.

"They tend to be rolled up with another business," he said. "Fisher isn't just selling business intelligence; it's also selling other things. A lot of these vertical products come out of … companies productizing their consulting business."

Another characteristic that can make the vertical market platforms useful for businesses is that the platforms are built using the language of the specific market and deep knowledge about it works.

"If it's well thought through, they really understand the vertical and the semantics of the business process," he continued. "They really understand how all the parts of the business fit together."

Enterprise-focused platforms from industry BI vendors can model just about everything but may not understand the relationship between an invoice and a purchase order, Farmer said.

"It has no idea about that and that's a process that every business in the world uses," he added. "It's not interested in semantics; it's interested in creating a generic business model that anyone can build and build those semantics in."

Paper industry changes ahead

Meanwhile, as the pandemic eases or withers away, the future toilet paper supply landscape will likely look a lot different.

The toilet paper industry has long maintained a clear distinction between the "home" and "away" markets. The away market primarily includes offices and other workplaces that use huge rolls of toilet paper with different perforation, or "perf," patterns than home rolls.

The industry may have to reconfigure its production patterns to produce more home supply as more employees work remotely in the future, Janda said.

Also, somewhat counterintuitively, the industry may need to dial down cardboard and other consumer packaging paper products because consumers will likely spend less by dramatically reducing discretionary purchases such as electronics, he said.

"The tissue is the easy one," Janda said. "Although, it's going to take some thought about how it's going to redistribute itself."

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