Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘energy crisis

Follow-up II: A new toilet paper shortage?

with 2 comments

In [1] and [2], I wrote about a potential new toilet-paper shortage and a feared attempt to force customers into buying over-priced 4-ply instead of 3-ply. In the almost two months since then, I have not spotted 3-ply at Akzenta* during my visits. These have been fewer than in the past, but as the toilet paper is easily visible from the main get-from-point-A-to-point-B aisle, I have been able to easily check, even when having no intention of actually buying toilet paper.

*The store referenced.

Yesterday, however, the 3-ply 10-packs (but not 16-packs) were back. At 4.05* Euro, they were more expensive than in the past, but cheaper than the inferior 4-ply 10-packs.** The reason for this is beyond my knowledge, but I would suspect costumer complaints or misguided proportions in orders (cf. excursion), e.g. in that both 3-ply and 4-ply is ordered, the 3-ply runs out much faster, and the shelves are then completely stocked with 4-ply to avoid the appearance of “out of product”. (I was there very early in the morning yesterday and, if relevant, reasonably early in the week, as it was a Tuesday.)

*Why 4.05 over 3.99? It is puzzling, as this is one of the prime cases where that 9 could truly have a psychological effect. As I note from my receipt, the other seven items that I bought all had an “ends with a 9” price, even when it cannot have had much of an effect. The difference between, say, 1.79 and 1.80 is highly unlikely to make even a psychological difference (let alone a practical one). I might speculate that Akzenta is trying to “acclimatize” the customers to “toilet paper costs 4-Euro-something” or maybe minimize the perceived prize difference to the over-prized 4-ply, as with a comparison between 4.05 and 4.99 instead of 3.99 and 4.99, but neither explanation truly makes sense to me. (Why 4.05 instead of 4.09? Beats me.)

**As I failed to note the price of the latter, an exact comparison is hard, but already last time around it was “close to five Euro”, and the arguments from [1] on plies, sheets, and quantity of paper apply, e.g. in that we compare 6,000 plies and 2,000 sheets per 10-pack of 3-ply with 6,000 plies and 1,500 sheets per 10-pack of 4-ply.

While I suspect that the dependency of toilet paper on gas has been overstated, I note that I saw another update on the gas stores very recently—apparently, the stores where ninety percent full. (After a few cold weeks in late November, December 2022 was likely the warmest that I have ever experienced, and January 2023 has, so far, been similar. Unless there is a very drastic change for the colder, sheer luck will make the politician-created gas crisis be a storm-in-a-tea-cup or cause it to be postponed until next winter.)

I also wrote about an apparently scrapped brand of cheap-but-high-quality chewing gum. A few weeks ago, the chewing gum was back—but then gone again for my next visit, and it has not resurfaced. Here there might be similar issues or there might e.g. be a situation where some rest store is present and portioned out to simultaneously avoid a write-off and a downward pressure on higher markup products. (But, again, here there is too much speculation necessary for my taste.)

Excursion on misguided proportions:
I have repeatedly made the experience that decision makers have no sense for what proportions of e.g. manufacture are suitable and fail to take empirical evidence into consideration to modify such proportions. The first such experience was school-lunches during my childhood: Evidently the same amount* of food was ordered regardless of what the food was. This resulted in everyone asking for seconds, and most being turned away for a lack of further supply, when there was e.g. a pasta dish, but great amounts of e.g. over-fried** fish and over-boiled** potatoes having to be thrown away on other days. The children noticed, the teachers noticed, the staff handling the school lunches certainly noticed—whoever made orders either did not or did not take action. The, maybe, most recent is ready-made rice dishes intended for the microwave that I occasionally buy at Aldi. There are three variations: “Mediterranean”, “Mexican”, and “Asian”. These appear to be delivered in cartons with an equal proportion of each. As it happens, I find the former two passable, the latter not—and apparently so do most other customers: if I visit in the evening, there is usually plenty of “Asian” left, but none of the others to be found. Why not just change the proportions to, maybe, 40–40–20, see happier customers, and reap greater profits? For that matter, why not pack cartons with just one type of dish, and let the stores order what proportions of cartons that they prefer?

*By some measure, maybe portions, maybe something else.

**Here note that this was not just a matter of these foods being inherently less to the taste of the children, which they certainly were, but also that the mass preparation, prolonged heating to keep the food warm, whatnot, hit such foods harder than they did, say, spaghetti and lasagna.


Written by michaeleriksson

January 11, 2023 at 10:01 am

Follow-up: A new toilet paper shortage?

with 2 comments

As 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 home an 8-pack (1600 sheets, 4800 plies; compare with the “Ja!” 4-ply 10-pack at 1500 sheets, 6000 plies). Even with a switch from 10 to 8 rolls, I do better with 3-ply. Moreover, my 8-pack cost me three* Euro, which compares very favorably to the “close to five Euro” of that 10-pack. In the good old days of 2-ply, I might, depending on priorities, have done even better with a 6-pack (!) at 1800 sheets and 3600 plies.

*2.95 or 2.99 or whatnot.

Excursion on consumer resistance:
But is so small an amount of money worth the extra effort? This is open to debate, at least for a single person.* My main motivation is something different, namely that by not buying 4-ply I make it harder for the stores and manufacturers to pull the artificially created switch to 4-ply.** If consumers were to even semi-consistently push against disputable methods, these would be less attractive to stores/manufacturers and the lives of consumers would be easier. Imagine, for instance, that many were to follow my example and deliberately avoid products encountered in advertising for some time period—advertisers might now see disappointing gains, no gains, or even a drop in sales as a result of an advertising campaign, which would make the amount of advertising decrease and, in turn, make the world less annoying and prices lower as the need to factor in advertising costs when setting prices is reduced.

*The economics might look very differently with two adults and four children.

**Strictly speaking, I cannot rule out that there was an element of coincidence behind the situation of [1]; however, looking at shelf arrangements and price labels, a deliberate change is the most likely explanation.

(A secondary motivation is that being somewhat price conscious might bring a considerable gain over the sum of all products, even when it does not do so over a single product. Shave, say, 10 percent of the yearly grocery bill and we are talking something noticeable.)

Excursion on comparing toilet papers:
One reason why I have never bothered much with toilet-paper comparisons in the past (let alone put them in writing) is the great problems with such comparisons—I have simply preferred to take the easy way out and, whenever possible, stick to the same brand. Consider that we have at least price, pack-size, number of sheets per roll, number of plies per sheet, the size of each individual sheet/ply,* and, to some degree, quality as core criteria—and then, depending on personal preferences, we might have secondary criteria, e.g. what proportion of the paper stems from recycling and what coloring** or pattering** might have been applied.

*Although I suspect that the differences are too small to bother with in most cases. The width, in particular, is likely to be standardized, to ensure that rolls from different brands fit in the same dispensers. (This might or might not also affect the number of plies, which has been 600 per roll for all the variations mentioned in these two texts.)

**Might influence popularity with many children and some women.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 21, 2022 at 11:09 pm

A new toilet paper shortage?

with 3 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