Way down a list of frequently asked questions sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic for papermaker Georgia-Pacific is one great answer to why toilet paper is still scarce in grocery stores: People staying home all the time use about 40% more than they otherwise would.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, all the people now working, doing their schoolwork or otherwise staying home spent the day in places where bathrooms were well supplied with toilet paper.
What has happened to toilet paper also explains why chicken wings and bacon are now widely available and why internet access at home is sometimes glitchy.
In all those situations, the providers of goods and services designed their operations for a different world than we live in right now.
A better question than why there are shortages or surpluses is why there aren’t many more of them. So just maybe none of these businesses trying to work through problems have done anything wrong.
One fix in the toilet paper market might seem simple — just truck the commercial stuff to Target or grocery stores for them to sell to consumers rather than to mostly empty schools and businesses — but it’s not simple.
The toilet paper made for institutions is very different from Georgia-Pacific’s Angel Soft and Quilted Northern, as a great post in the online publication Marker explained. It’s packaged and distributed differently, too.
Increase production? Georgia-Pacific, for one, has said its running 24/7. But because annual demand for toilet paper had to be one of easiest things to accurately forecast in all of business, the industry was likely operating close to full capacity well before this crisis.
Any provider with excess capacity to make one of the most basic of consumer staples was the leading candidate to get merged out of existence.
The big change in where the customers consume has also affected the market for other things, particularly food. Dairy was disrupted because so much milk and cheese had been consumed in schools and other food-service locations, now generally shut down.
The same thing has happened with bacon, with sharply lower demand from food service because of the requirements of social distancing to slow the virus. Packaged bacon meant for institutional customers can be switched over to retail only with difficulty, because a package might have many times more bacon than a family would normally buy.
The chicken wing market also missed one of its big seasonal peaks, the Washington Post reported, as the COVID-19 crisis changed what people want and where they want it.
There are two big annual spikes in chicken wing demand, the Super Bowl in February followed by the March Madness tournament for men’s major college basketball. The basketball event didn’t happen this year.
The Buffalo Wild Wings casual-dining company, now part of Inspire Brands Inc., had to bag a promotion that was going to let some lucky fans actually sleep over at one of its restaurants, to watch up to 32 NCAA basketball games and eat lord knows how many chicken wings.
As the U.S. Department of Agriculture explained in a recent market conditions report, the number of chicks hatched for production from the start of the year through the last week of March was up 4% from a year ago, to roughly 2.5 billion. That’s 5 billion wings.
To produce a chicken wing someone first has to raise a chicken, of course. Decisions on production were made months before the expected first tipoff.
In lots of industries, suppliers can’t stop on a dime. In a supply chain, a slowdown looks a little like a highway fender-bender on a snowy morning. The drivers in the back are not able to pump the breaks in time as cars in front abruptly stop.
A big switch in where consumers use something has happened to the internet service industry, too.
The businesses-conferencing software Microsoft Teams and other technologies have seen usage shoot up since the middle of March. And a competing product called Zoom is being used in my neighborhood for school, birthday parties and happy-hour get-togethers as well as work.
The number of meeting participants using Zoom during a day peaked out at the end of last year at about 10 million, its founder said in a blog post a couple of weeks ago. That shot to more than 200 million per day in March.
Before the pandemic crisis, Netflix and YouTube together accounted for nearly a one-third of internet traffic. Today one reason their shows have kept appearing normally as internet traffic increased is that the firms in recent years quietly reshaped their systems. They built more data centers spread out around the country to reduce the distance on the internet that data flows to reach a customer.
But as impressively as this has all worked, there have been frustrations trying to work at my house, almost certainly with some problem in what’s called the last mile of connections.
Lots of consumers get their internet access through cable TV providers, for example. Cable service was set up originally to get TV programming into the homes of consumers, of course, not necessarily to get customer-generated data quickly back out.
Measured internet speeds can vary throughout a day but download speeds are likely much faster than the upload speeds. When setting up service, who even thought to check the promised upload capability?
Now it might matter, if kids are trying to be present for schoolteachers via Zoom and parents are trying to talk to colleagues on video conferences.
Rather than mutter in frustration if video freezes, though, take a deep breath. Order some chicken wings for delivery and go find the family’s favorite TV series on Netflix or Hulu.
Then be grateful for all the people who made it possible for the shows to keep playing at all.