As coronavirus concerns continue to grow, Aussies are inexplicably flocking to supermarkets to buy and stockpile toilet paper.
But, the phenomenon is online too, with ethical, e-commerce toilet paper brand Who Gives a Crap seeing a massive influx of sales, and ultimately also declaring itself out of stock.
On Tuesday, founder and chief Simon Griffiths tweeted that sales were up some 800%.
The wealthy Sydney suburbs of Mosman and Balmain were over-indexing most significantly, he said. In the Northern Territory, on the other hand, sales have remained pretty much exactly the same.
By the end of the day, the brand had sold 10 times as much as on a normal day.
Panic buying facts from @WhoGivesACrapTP AU data:
– ???? sales are up 8x. People really panicking over not having TP. Imagine being one of 2.3 billion w/o a ????!
– NSW buying TP the hardest. Mosman & Balmain over-indexing the most ????
– NT very relaxed. A reg day in Alice & Darwin ????♂️
— Simon Griffiths (@simongriffiths) March 3, 2020
Speaking to SmartCompany, Griffiths says the rush of customers came as something of a shock.
While he and the Who Gives a Crap team had been observing toilet paper shortages in Hong Kong, given its proximity to China, and in Singapore and Japan, they didn’t expect the same frenzy to happen at home.
“It’s definitely not something that we were expecting or preparing for,” he says.
“I don’t think anyone was.”
By the time business closed on Tuesday, the business had seen the biggest volume of daily sales “by far”, Griffiths says.
“That’s not super sustainable.”
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While the spike is a win for the business, the founder is also very aware of the needs of the subscribers and business customers on the books, and has had to put a halt on new orders, for now.
“We’ve marked our store as sold out, so we can take stock of inventory, make sure that we’re holding enough to be able to fill our obligations to our subscribers and our business customers,” he explains.
It’s only the third time ever that the business has had to mark itself as sold out — and the first time excess demand has been the main reason for that.
“We’ll probably turn things back on again once this buying surge dies down and things start to normalise.”
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Fear and FOMO
The extraordinary run on toilet paper in Australia has been a bit baffling. And, while it’s led to many a meme, it has also raised serious concerns about those living in poverty, for example, who aren’t able to stockpile, and may now find themselves going without.
You know who can’t ‘panic buy’ and stockpile goods?
People on low incomes, living week to week on little cash.
Runs on essential items hurt people in poverty.
— VCOSS (@VCOSS) March 4, 2020
For Griffiths, there are two main explanations for the panic buying.
“One is that some people are preparing to potentially stay inside for a long period of time,” he says.
“Prescription drugs and sanitary items — that’s the kind of stuff they want to be stockpiling.”
The other stream of thought is that people are concerned that companies will have to shut down because of coronavirus, meaning products will no longer be available.
“As a result, there has been a bit of fear, and then a bit of FOMO, which has driven the final piece of panic buying over the line,” Griffiths says.
Seriously WTF Australia? Panic buying of toilet paper at Woolies pic.twitter.com/VyYnct4rAV
— Andrew Backhouse (@Andytwit123) March 4, 2020
There is also the suggestion that supermarket shelves have emptied as a result of supply chain disruption, not just because of excessive panic buying.
But Griffiths says, while this is a sensible thing to worry about, it’s likely not the main cause of the sellouts at the moment.
“Some producers produce domestically, others produce internationally … some of the domestic producers use international packaging,” he explains.
But, Who Gives a Crap paper is manufactured in China, and while there was a period of two weeks or so when the supply chain was disrupted, it’s back to business as usual for now.
“We were carrying enough stock to be able to work through that. We just weren’t prepared to see a 10-times spike in demand,” Griffiths says.
“We’ve got stock, we’re just not ready to put it online to sell yet,” he adds.
“That should be a week or so away.”
Sharing is caring
As a social enterprise, Who Gives a Crap puts 50% of profits towards building toilets and improving sanitation in developing countries. So, while a sales spike is a boost for business, it also presents an opportunity to talk about the bigger picture, Griffiths says.
“We’re panicking about not having toilet paper. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the 2.3 billion that don’t even have access to a toilet,” he says.
“That results in 700 deaths of kids under the age of five every day.”
Having strong sales just means Who Gives a Crap can continue on its mission and make more of a difference. But, Griffiths also encourages people to be considerate of those close to home as well.
“I would certainly encourage people to think about the big picture, and think about the people who really do need toilet paper, because they’ve run out and now can’t buy some because of the stockpiling.
“Make sure your friends and neighbours are OK.”