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Lessons from a toilet paper expert

As panic-buying increased, toilet paper was one of the first supplies to go. But why? Walgreens’ category manager of paper goods explains.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot about personal hygiene: how to wash your hands thoroughly while singing two rounds of “Happy Birthday.” How just thinking about not touching your face can bring on a sudden itch. And how toilet paper is worth its weight in gold.

The threat of coronavirus and the possibility of being quarantined inside for weeks or months has caused people around the world to behave differently. But they all have one thing in common: panic-buying toilet paper. The behavior has left many wondering – why toilet paper? Will we run out? And what happens if we do?

Walgreens News was determined to get to the bottom of it.

So we turned to Keith Loeffler, category manager of paper goods – our resident toilet paper expert – for his take on panic-buying, why customers rushed to toilet paper and how Walgreens is responding to the sudden demand. Here are nine things he’s learned so far:

  1. Panic-buying begets panic-buying. “It began on the West Coast. People were posting photos of empty shelves in California on social media, and it sent a panic throughout the country that spread like wildfire. People started thinking that eventually their local retailers would also be empty, and they rushed out to buy what they could. And that’s when the panic-buying really picked up nationally. Eventually, even the people who knew this 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.”
  2. Running out of toilet paper is a psychological fear. “It’s hard to explain, and I’m not sure anybody has a good reason for it, but I have to believe that psychologically, running out of toilet paper is just a fear people have in the back of their minds. Right or wrong, that fear is pretty strong, so it’s become high on the list of essentials customers are panic-buying. And 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.”
  3. People were more worried about running out of toilet paper than food. “It’s been unbelievable to see the panic-buying evolve. It started with gloves and masks, then moved to disinfecting products (another category I manage), then paper goods and then food. Surprisingly, one of the last ones to pick up was alcohol. It was crazy to see the surge on toilet paper happen in between disinfecting products and food – toilet paper was before 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.”
  4. Buying habits are changing. “Customers are now savvy enough to ask our stores when the next delivery truck will arrive, and we see people show up early that day in anticipation of the new goods coming in. They wait around near the back of the store until team members bring the items from the truck onto the floor. Sometimes customers take product right off the carts and buy it before it even makes it to the shelf.”

  1. Customers have limited options, so they’re trying new things. “Anything will do in an emergency, which means there’s no debating over one-ply or two, soft or strong, owned or national brand. And that can be a good thing. Walgreens has two owned brands of toilet paper, 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.”
  2. We have to think differently in order to catch up. “The biggest key to success so far has been having daily calls with our top suppliers to talk through how inventory is getting out of their facilities and into our distribution centers, share new market observations, and brainstorm ways we can work together to close the existing and future supply-and-demand gap. In addition to thinking differently about distribution, 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.”
  3. We have to hold hands as an industry. “Whenever I’m talking to our suppliers about why we need inventory, I’m talking on behalf of the retail pharmacy industry as a whole. I think we have to be able to talk more broadly about what’s good for the customer, not just what’s good for Walgreens. There are immunizations and medications being developed right now to help fight COVID-19, and retail pharmacies are going to play an important role in the outcome of this whole situation. These are unusual times, but I think holding hands as an industry for the greater good of all is a really important part of the narrative right now.”
  4. The collaboration within Walgreens has never been better. “I’ve been with Walgreens almost 25 years, at the corporate headquarters for 18 years, and I’ve never seen the level of collaboration that we have right now. My team, like so many of our colleagues, has been under a ton of pressure, but they have responded exactly the way I knew they would. Stepping up, working tirelessly to get this thing right and finding new ways of doing things. Everybody is 100 percent focused on the exact same goal – getting product to our stores as quickly as possible – and I think it has made a tremendous difference in what we’ve been able to accomplish and how fast we’ve been able to accomplish it.”
  5. There’s enough toilet paper for everyone – but only if you buy what you need. “The world isn’t running out of toilet paper. There’s enough out there for everybody, but there won’t be if people are buying five, six, seven times what their family actually needs. Because of the scarcity complex that everyone has built up, I believe it’s going to be awhile before we return to a more normal state. We’ll probably see some items taper off, like paper towels, but things like hand sanitizer will continue to be in high demand. My advice is to think about your actual usage, and please buy in reasonable amounts.”

As panic-buying increased, toilet paper was one of the first supplies to go. But why? Walgreens’ category manager of paper goods explains.

CVS and Walgreens Ban an Issue of Rolling Stone

The chain stores CVS/Pharmacy and Walgreens said on Wednesday that they would not sell the latest issue of Rolling Stone, which features a cover photo that some critics and Massachusetts politicians say glamorizes the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

It was explicitly the cover image, a photo of Mr. Tsarnaev that he used online, which shows him with long hair and a trim mustache and in an Armani Exchange shirt — not the lengthy article inside — that has drawn criticism. Over the day, those objections gathered momentum, aided by social media.

Both CVS and Walgreens made their announcements on Twitter; their messages were passed on hundreds of times.

The cover of Rolling Stone has long been a sign for rock stars, celebrities and even politicians that they have arrived, and the sight of the bombing suspect receiving similar treatment has provoked strong reaction, especially from the Boston area.

By the afternoon, Mayor Thomas M. Menino had sent a letter to the publisher of Rolling Stone, Jann S. Wenner, objecting that the cover “rewards a terrorist with celebrity treatment.” And Gov. Deval L. Patrick of Massachusetts, responding to a question from reporters, said: “I haven’t read it, but I understand the substance of the article is not objectionable. It’s apparently pretty good reporting. But the cover is out of taste, I think.”

The bombings on April 15, which Mr. Tsarnaev is accused of carrying out with his brother, Tamerlan, killed three people and wounded more than 260 near the finish line of the race.

Mr. Tsarnaev pleaded not guilty to 30 federal charges contained in a sweeping terrorism indictment.

Another chain, Tedeschi Food Shops, which is based in New England, also said it would not carry the issue, dated Aug. 1, explaining on its Facebook page that while the company “supports the need to share the news with everyone,” it “cannot support actions that serve to glorify the evil actions of anyone.”

The magazine published a note atop the article that began: “Our hearts go out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, and our thoughts are always with them and their families.” After defending the article, which was written by the investigative reporter Janet Reitman, as fitting the magazine’s tradition of serious journalism, the editors try to turn some of the criticism on its head.

“The fact that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is young, and in the same age group as many of our readers, makes it all the more important for us to examine the complexities of this issue and gain a more complete understanding of how a tragedy like this happens,” they wrote.

Ms. Reitman reported the article over the last two months, Rolling Stone said, interviewing childhood and high school friends, teachers, neighbors and law enforcement officials. The result, the magazine says, is “a riveting and heartbreaking account of how a charming kid with a bright future became a monster.”

Ms. Reitman, who declined to comment when reached via e-mail, responded on Twitter before the full article was posted online, to a friend writing in support, “It’s kind of astonishing. No one has even read it yet!”

The cover image has drawn criticism that it glamorizes the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. ]]>