Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

A new toilet paper shortage?

with 2 comments

Shortly before I bought toilet paper the last time, I was met with the news that lack of gas* could have a negative effect on the availability of toilet paper. Remembering the empty shelves caused by hoarding when there was no underlying supply problem,** I decided to go from my usual 10-pack of 3-ply (“Ja!” brand) to a 16-pack, to be set for a good long while—after all, if a real supply problem is combined with hoarding, things could get really ugly.

*Feel free to apply your own toilet humor.

**Cf. e.g. [1] and [2].

Earlier today, I encountered the claim that the German gas situation was under control, after all, that the storage tanks were full, and that everything would be fine during the winter.* I also, coincidentally, found myself on my last roll of toilet paper.**

*Maybe as a result of the unusually warm October and, to date, November. I caution that various claims around gas and whatnot might not always be reliable—the previous track record has been spotty.

**I usually buy the next pack well in advance, but the greater quantity of the 16-pack made it drop from my mind.

I went to the store to fill my supplies, preferably with the same type of 16-pack. No such luck. Not only were there no 16-packs, but there was no 3-ply paper at all—only the wasteful and over-expensive 4-ply (cf. below). The cheapest available was at close to five Euro, for a “Ja!” 10-pack of 4-ply, given as 150 sheets* per roll, equalling 1500 sheets and 6000 plies. Other brands charged even more for 8-packs, still in the wasteful 4-ply version. The old 16-pack? 200 sheets per roll for a total of 3200 sheets and 9600 plies. While I do not remember the price of this 16-pack, after so long a time, I believe that it was on a similar level, and I do know that I have bought 10-packs of 3-ply for 2-Euro-something in the past. (How far back in the past, I do not know. Toilet paper is not normally a priority.) I decided to forego the purchase and make a new attempt in another store tomorrow or on Monday.

*With reservations for exact terminology. Think the part between two sets of perforations.

Oh, and there was also a limit of two packs per customer.

Here we see another case of artificial limits on choice (cf. [3] and follow-ups): Why should I, as a customer, be restricted to 4-ply, when I was reasonably content with 3-ply, and very happy with the old 2-ply?* In sufficiently far away times and in Sweden I have even used 1-ply, which my father used to buy for a while. My sole complaint against 1-ply was that the paper quality was lower—but that is not an inherent property of 1-ply and was likely a result of the producers assuming that 1-ply users were cheap-skates who would prefer lower quality too.** Indeed, it could easily be argued that a lower ply number is better, as it allows a greater flexibility: maybe there are tasks where a single sheet of 4-ply is a good choice, but a 4-ply user is inherently limited to multiples of four, where a 2-ply user can use multiples of two, and the 1-ply user multiples of one. Say that a given task requires a quantity equivalent to 6 plies. The 4-ply user has the choice between 4, too little and maybe inadequate, and 8, too much and wasteful, while the 2- and 1-ply users hit the spot. Often, it is the sheets that count, and the 4-ply user is then naturally wasteful.

*2-ply has already disappeared from the consumer market in Germany, some years ago, in a similar customer-hostile and price-raising move. If not, I would still be buying it by preference.

**This is a common problem, e.g. with electronics, that quality is something that co-varies with quantity resp. set of features, when it should be an independent factor. For instance, a consumer might have a choice between a small low-quality TV and a large high-quality one—but rarely has the option of a small high-quality one. (He might find a small expensive TV with greater ease, but that is another matter.)

To take another perspective and look at how to handle a shortage: It would make sense to lower the ply number and, thereby, increase the total number of sheets available. For instance, the above 4-ply had 150 sheets and 600 plies per roll. The same number of plies/the same quantity of paper would give 300 (!) sheets of 2-ply or 600 (!!!) sheets of 1-ply. The number of sheets is, of course, not everything that counts, but sheets are often equivalent or near-equivalent, regardless of the number of plies; and when the plies do count for more, there is always the option of just folding one sheet of 2-ply over another for effective 4-ply, while dividing 4-ply into 2-ply is a different story. (Also note the environmental angle, where 4-ply fares correspondingly worse.)

The reason for this is ultimately a matter of higher markups, as with the earlier removal of 2-ply in favor of 3-ply. Despite more plies leading to an inferior product, the price per quantity of paper increases, while the production costs do not, leading to a higher markup. (A contrafactual “superior product” is pushed by non-arguments like “Supersoft!!!”, while providing nothing not achievable through folding 2-ply.) However, in the current era of inflation, it also likely carries an element of increasing-prices-without-increasing-prices: markets are segmented into different price and product ranges, and by simply removing relatively low-end products the average price increases—even when no individual product sees a price increase. Similarly, a few weeks ago, I noted that Akzenta had scrapped my favorite brand (also “Ja!”) of sugar-free* gum—cheap, good quality, and not as ridiculously strong-tasting as some of the more expensive brands.** My first attempt at a replacement (“Fresh and Free Active” from Aldi) seems to do the job, but is a little carton-y in taste and texture—definitely a lesser choice.

*Strictly speaking, “sugar-free” partially misses the point, but I have found no good translation for the German “Zahnpflegekaugummi” (literally, roughly, “tooth-care chewing-gum”) for which the key point is increased salivation, while being “sugar-free” is a mere prerequisite to avoid doing more harm than good.

**I strongly suspect that many tooth-care, household cleaning, whatnot products work with an artificially increased taste resp. smell in order to create a misleading impression of a greater effect.

An interesting complication is how short-term this approach is: Yes, removing the cheaper products from the markets, shrinking package sizes, whatnot can lead to customers not noticing price increases that strongly in the now—but what about tomorrow? The basics of market segmentation and competition have not changed, an optimization of profits will not be possible without a sufficiently granular segmentation, and, if one company foregoes a market segment, some competitor will, sooner or later, move in. Chances are that these short-term manipulations are a bad idea in the long-term.

Excursion on price increases vs. dishonest price increases:
I stress that I do not (necessarily) object to prices rising, as long as this reflects market forces and is done in an honest manner. Given a certain quantity and quality, I do prefer to pay less—duh! However, it is better to have a higher price and the ability to actually buy something than a lower price and empty shelves. My main beef above is about the dishonest manipulations involved, including attempts to mislead and to artificially limit choice. A lesser beef revolves around a poor way to handle a supply deficit, and one that might be argued as irresponsible, but here care must be taken not to put too great demands on the industry. (Note, as a negative example, the rhetoric and demands made by many governments around energy prices—up to and including the demand that suppliers should sell gas and electricity at prices that would cause them to lose money…)


Written by michaeleriksson

November 18, 2022 at 10:54 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] a brief follow-up to [1]: Monday came and I tried my luck with Aldi. Here I did indeed find the 3-ply paper, and brought […]

  2. […] [1] and [2], I wrote about a potential new toilet-paper shortage and a feared attempt to force […]

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