What do these two unrelated products have in common? No, they’re not interchangeable. They are, in the Current Situation, often hard to find in stores. When looking for them, we’re often greeted with empty shelves.
The common wisdom is that this is caused by horrible, selfish hoarders stocking up for Eternity. However, my research has discovered a different reason for these shortages.
It has to do with increased demand and mismatched manufacturing processes.
In the case of flour, mills provide for two types of customers: commercial kitchens and bakers and home consumers. For commercial customers, mills sell flour in 50-lb (or larger) bags. For home users, it’s sold in much smaller bags: 1-, 2-, or 5-lb bags. Usually, commercial sales account for over 95% of sales but, with the lockdown restrictions in place, home baking and consumer demand for flour have soared.
The result: mills aren’t geared up to fill that many small bags, so we have shortages in grocery stores. In the U.K., for example, flour mills have recently switched to round-the-clock operations to meet the increased need for small packaging.
The answer to the Missing TP Mystery is similar: paper mills are geared up to produce vastly more paper products for commercial use than for consumer use. They use a different kind of paper pulp and different machines to make commercial TP. This variety of TP, for use in restrooms in airports, restaurants, sports venues, etc., has been the majority of their output, while TP for home use was a much smaller percentage of their output.
But now, due to coronavirus lockdowns, average household daily use of TP has jumped (as much as 800% in some countries) resulting in a mismatch between current market needs and typical paper mill output. Once again, producers are adjusting as quickly as they can to the new demands.
So now, when I see empty store shelves, I’m going to try harder to think better of my fellow shoppers and not reflexively blame hoarding as the cause, and I encourage you to do the same.