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The Germans are hoarding toilet paper

29.10.2020

The Germans are hoarding toilet paper

How our media landscape contributes to the spreading of myths instead of doing a great deal of work to help us clear them up.

Even before the first lockdown imposed by the federal and state governments to stem the spread of the new coronavirus, on 22 March 2020, it was already apparent that food and goods shortages were occurring in some areas of Germany. On 29 February 2020, for example, the newspaper Hamburger Morgenpost headlined: "Toilet Paper, Noodles and Co. — The Great Hamstering: These Products are Now Running Short" and showed an empty Aldi shelf in Reinbek, near Hamburg. News of this kind was then taken up by other media and, in the following days, more and more buyers were starting to feel actual shortages. This was in part a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But how much substance is there in the claim that Germans, in the days of COVID-19, are given to hoarding, especially toilet paper and noodles? One would think that such an investigative coverage should have been in the interest of our media landscape. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case, because the survival of the press in times of rapid electronic news distribution is primarily based on the headline and how well this picks up on the zeitgeist. Emotions, such as the fear of sudden change and anger at the inconsiderateness of fellow human beings, serve to create a bond with the readership. Together, we can now look at the greedy hoarders who endanger the community through their selfish behaviour.

And at first it is barely noticeable that the article, through its description of the impending shortage, animates its readers to begin hamstering food and goods for themselves. Indeed, one could understand such an article as the starting signal to a major hoarding event. Both the headline and the photo of the empty shelf are introducing the readers to a situation and concept that they themselves in large parts had not yet experienced or even noticed. It could even be argued that only the subsequent change in purchasing behaviour then results in nationwide delivery bottlenecks. Sadly, the article itself does not address the cause of the empty shelf.

Let’s step back a few weeks to a time before COVID-19. In order to launch a new customer project, crossXculture had invited an expert in supply chain management to give a presentation. In front of a small selection of our assembled trainers, he spoke about supply chains and explained the difficulties in maintaining them smoothly, especially when demand fluctuates. We learned that there is a direct link between the demand on the supermarket shelf and the location where the raw materials are sourced. In a way, this can be seen as a pipeline with the customers at one end and the raw materials at the other end. In between, also connected to the pipeline, there are several steps of processing. Thanks to modern electronics one is able to see through the pipeline, from one end to the other.

Now back to COVID-19 and the time around the lockdown. If you look at toilet paper as a consumable good, the first thing you notice is that it is produced in different sizes for different purposes. In the commercial sector, for example, large quantities of it are needed, which in turn are spooled onto large rolls to lower the frequency of having to replenish, e.g. at gas stations, in schools, in public swimming pools, in large companies, etc. For the private sector, on the other hand, smaller rolls are available in standard household packaging. Whereas in the commercial sector toilet paper is often delivered on Euro-pallets and by truck, private buyers have to consider the aspect of home transport on foot, by bicycle, or by private car, when making their choice.

When companies urge their employees to stay away from the workplace and customer visits are cancelled, when there is less travel in the country as a whole, and when schools and kindergartens are closed, the demand for toilet paper shifts from the commercial to the domestic supply chain. Applying our aforementioned tube example to these two separate supply chains means that the manufacturers of commercial toilet paper are looking into a pipeline with hardly any customers visible at the other end. The result is that this market collapses and production is reduced.

At the same time, manufacturers looking into the pipeline for private buyers now see a threatening number of prospective customers gathered, while at the production end the same capacities are available as before. Manufacturers can now consider whether what they are experiencing is worthwhile for them to expand production — given the short period of time in which the additional demand exists. After all, toilet paper is not a seasonal product, and the situation is very similar for pasta. Large kitchens in companies and schools and the country's restaurants buy from a different supply chain than private consumers. As a result, eating at home creates a shortage in the private sector as well, when the customers of the commercial suppliers disappear. This analysis was quickly confirmed by the experience that wholesalers such as Metro and Fegro still had the products of alleged shortage available in bulk packages, not to mention office suppliers who were sitting on millions of unsold rolls.

While this should be an easy enough principle of supply and demand to comprehend, unfortunately, this scenario is not as effective for the purpose of media sales as the assumption made by the Hamburger Morgenpost that only 'hamstering’, i.e. the egotism of some individuals, can be the reason for the seen shortages. As far as I remember, pictures of elderly ladies who pushed around with two packs of toilet paper in their shopping carts followed. It is well possible that their only misstep that day had been to read the newspaper in the morning.

cXc | crossXculture

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