Learnings from the toilet paper spree

Dan Ochwat
Executive Editor
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“Anything will do in an emergency, which means there’s no debating over one-ply or two, soft or strong, owned or national brand,” said Keith Loeffler, category manager of paper goods at Walgreens, the chain’s proclaimed toilet paper expert, aka “The Toilet Paper King” (OK, I made that up). “And that can be a good thing.”

Loeffler went on to say that Walgreens has two store brands, Complete Home and Big Roll, “and this is a unique opportunity for our owned brands to gain traction. For a customer who hasn't been willing to try one of our owned brands in the past, if it's the only item on shelf, they’re going to try it because it's there – and we expect they’ll be impressed with the quality.”

How shoppers have been hoarding toilet paper during the coronavirus pandemic has been a consumer behavior that no retailer or manufacturer really saw coming, but Loeffler tried to make sense of it in an article that Walgreens posted. Loeffler covered nine lessons learned including the above that with limited options available, customers are willing to try new things, and that emboldens its private label brands. 

Other insights from Loeffler:

Panic buying is contagious. He said it began on the West Coast with people posting social media images of empty shelves in California and that spread quickly across the country. “Eventually, even the people who knew the behavior was irrational were hit with the fear of missing out, and so they stocked up, too. At the height of it, Walgreens’ paper goods category had three weeks of inventory sell in just three days.”

Having no toilet paper is a psychological fear. The panic buying stems from a a natural fear that consumers always have in the back of their minds about running out of toilet paper. “Right or wrong, that fear is pretty strong,” Loeffler said. “Now we’re at the point where people are just buying toilet paper any time they see it on a shelf, even if they don’t need it, because they haven’t seen a full paper department in so long.”

At the height of it, Walgreens’ paper goods category had three weeks of inventory sell in just three days.
Keith Loeffler

Food trailed home essential goods. Loeffler said as the panic shopping evolved, it started with gloves and masks, then disinfecting products, then paper goods like toilet paper and then food. “ And from what we've heard from our suppliers, the exact same thing happened in Italy, France and other countries where the outbreak occurred before ours did. So it's not a U.S. thing – it's a human thing.”

Shoppers are smarter today. The savvier shoppers were asking store managers when the next delivery truck would arrive and people would show up early that day, and even waiti near the back of the store and empty the product before it could even make the shelf, he said.

The supply chain had to think differently to keep up. Loeffler said Walgreens communicated daily with suppliers on inventory status, the best ways to get product out of facilities and into Walgreens’ DCs, and the most efficient ways to fill the supply-and-demand gap. “We're asking our suppliers to think differently about the way they manufacture – producing fewer variations of toilet paper, for example, and increasing production of certain types that are made most efficiently. We’ve also reviewed hundreds of potential suppliers that we’re not yet doing business with to see if we can source extra inventory.”

Take an industry stance. Be it immunizations and medications developed to fight COVID-19, the role retail pharmacies play in this pandemic, Loeffler said the retail pharmacy industry as a whole needs “hold hands as an industry.”

Loeffler said there’s enough toilet paper out there for everybody, but there won’t be if shoppers are buying five, six or seven-times the amount their family actually needs. Go here to read more on what Loeffler had to say.