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Supply chain problems: toilet paper is back in stock, but rolls are smaller

Earlier this morning, Rob McNealy pointed out on Twitter that while toilet paper is back on store shelves, it appears to be 20% smaller than before. I was in a perfect position to test this. I had some toilet paper rolls bought back in March to compare with recently-purchased toilet paper of the same brand and packaging. So I put the rolls side by side.

Could companies really be shorting us on toilet paper and other essentials to meet demand? Is the supply chain in that much trouble?

The short answer: yes.

Before panic buying started, we ordered some toilet paper from Sam’s Club. We were able to order more just last week. Both rolls were the Member’s Mark brand, a Sam’s Club private label.

I put the rolls side by side. To my shock, the new roll was indeed smaller.

I decided to measure them both with a tape measure. The results:

  • The “old roll” was 5 1/2 inches wide.
  • The “new roll” was 4 3/4 inches wide.
Two pictures of a tape measuring toilet paper rolls before and after panic buying.
On the left, a pre-panic roll of Member’s Mark toilet paper. Right: post-panic toilet paper.

So what’s the deal?

Let’s compare the packaging of the “old stuff” to the “new stuff.” The old pack advertised 275 sheets and a total of 293.6 square feet, while the new pack only claims 235 sheets and 250.9 square feet. Crucially, both packs cost exactly the same. So Member’s Mark appears to be quietly changing the number of sheets per roll.

A picture of two toilet paper packs, before and after panic buying.
A pack from before the panic contains more than a pack from after the panic.

While this isn’t evidence that the supply chain is melting down, it is a clear reflection of COVID-19-related supply chain issues. It’s possible that companies are reducing toilet paper roll size to expand supply and meet growing demand. Or, maybe manufacturers are just taking advantage of the toilet paper shortage to boost their margins.

There are two ways to raise unit prices during supply chain issues: higher package prices, and smaller packages. When it comes to toilet paper, Sam’s Club opted for number two.

We’d love to know if you’ve also noticed differences in quality or quantity since the pandemic began. Please share examples with us in the comments.


    • lemur

      Reductions in quantity like this happen all the time for all kinds of products. It is a common tactic to raise the price per unit without raising the sticker price. Consumerist, before it went dead, used to track cases of what it called “the grocery shrink ray”:

      If manufacturers raised the sticker price, people would be more likely to notice that they are paying more and maybe reconsider their choices in favor of a competitor. Folks are much less likely to notice a change in quantity.

      9 |
    • SeaBee

      I’m investing heavily in the corncob market, just saying.

      6 |
    • woodrow

      I know, I know, it’s a ripoff, right? But TP is a very competitive scenario right now on the grocery shelves.  I’d rather them produce more packages, albeit with fewer sheets, than fewer packages.  With quantity limitations enforce by stores, this is a good way to spread the joy to more customers,

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    • mopdx

      “When it comes to toilet paper, Sam’s Club opted for number two.”

      I see what you did there. 😉

      Very informative article, by the way. I never thought that the producers would alter packaging to squeeze more profits.

      5 |
    • Hazard Awareness

      I wonder, if you are still able to check, are the rolls narrower? I see the loss of 3/4in depth on the side, but has it changed across the front, too? That would be another area they could pretty stealthily cut back and still not be as noticeable.

      5 |