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How long will essentials like toilet paper be hard to get? It depends.

Vox.com logo Vox.com 3/17/2020 Hilary George-Parkin

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There are few sights more disconcerting in modern-day America than a grocery store filled with barren shelves, and in recent weeks, Costcos and Krogers across the country have seen whole aisles wiped clean as fears about the novel coronavirus outbreak have escalated to alarming heights.

At first, anxieties about contracting the virus lead to a run on protective face masks and hand sanitizer, but as the number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. has swelled and millions have been advised to work from home, attend classes online, and otherwise limit contact with others, stockpiling and panic-buying have lead to shortages in other categories. Today, stores are straining to keep all kinds of products — Lysol wipes, Clorox bleach, toilet paper, bottled water, thermometers, canned food, bread, Tylenol, and hand soap — in stock.

While the biggest grocery chains, food suppliers, and consumer goods brands are generally well-equipped to handle this kind of surge in demand, experts say the global reach of their supply chains is also contributing to the problem. Many stores have now reduced their opening hours and placed purchasing limits on high-demand products in order to give workers opportunity to replenish shelves, but there is still uncertainty throughout their supply chains.

For once, “just buy it on Amazon” isn’t the easy solution, either. The e-commerce giant notified sellers on March 11 that it would restrict sales of products like face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and sprays, and isopropyl alcohol on its third-party marketplace in response to rampant price gouging and deceptive labeling, which saw four-packs of Purell listed for as much as $220. One merchant, who hoarded 17,700 bottles of it before Amazon pulled his listings, is under investigation by his state’s attorney general’s office for price gouging; he donated the stash after a New York Times article about his business generated massive outcry.

Even products sold directly by Amazon got more expensive as news of the virus spread, with prices on one in six listings for sanitizers or masks surging at least 50 percent in February, according to an analysis by consumer advocacy organization U.S. PIRG Education Fund. By now, of course, these are long sold out — as are household goods like toilet paper and bottled water. Unlike many out-of-stock listings on the site, most of these don’t even show an expected ship date.

“We are working around the clock with our selling partners to ensure availability on all of our products, and bring on additional capacity to deliver all of your orders,” the company wrote in a March 13 blog post.

These lengthy delays from Amazon, of all retailers, shows how unprepared many global supply chains are for an event like a pandemic, says Jennifer Bisceglie, founder and CEO of Interos, a supply chain risk management company.

“We were caught pretty flat-footed,” she said. The out-of-stock listings “were kind of an early cue because that’s what [Amazon] does. They’re just a massive supply chain.”

the inside of a building: Toilet paper and paper towel shelves are left empty at a Target in Nashville, Tennessee.

Toilet paper and paper towel shelves are left empty at a Target in Nashville, Tennessee.
© Jason Kempin/Getty Images

COVID-19 is a shock to both supply and demand

The current situation may seem familiar from the frenzied shopping typically seen before a hurricane or even last year’s pre-Brexit stockpiling (which saw U.K. consumers spend £4 billion in anticipation of potential food shortages), but there are a few elements that set it apart.

First, the crisis isn’t contained to a single state or even country. When that’s the case, says Joe Vernon, transformation and next-gen technologies leader at the consulting firm Capgemini, retailers are well-equipped to respond by moving inventory from a distribution center or a store with extra stock. “They [can] reallocate some of those resources, pack them, and get them moved to a store [that needs them].”

Reallocating inventory requires some cost/benefit analysis, however. “If you divert that normal shipment that goes from your regional distribution center to your network of stores close to that regional center and all of a sudden you haul it twice the distance to New York City, that’s twice the cost,” he said.

“We were caught pretty flat-footed.”

“Retailers that have spent a lot of money on visibility and forecasting and distribution networks” — that is, those that aren’t still using spreadsheets and emails — “this is the kind of situation where their investment really pays off because they understand their supply chain very well from that perspective,” he continued, citing the fact that grocers like Wegmans and Publix have not reported any substantive issues in their stores beyond short-term stockouts.

The outbreak has also created an unlucky confluence of spiking demand and widespread supplier delays. A large number of factories around China making products ranging from auto parts to iPhones to Bratz dolls have been closed since before Lunar New Year in late January, and transportation of goods slowed almost to a halt last month as the government imposed severe travel restrictions, work stoppages, and quarantines on hundreds of millions of people.

Their efforts appear to be paying off: From a peak of more than 2,000 new cases a day, China reported only four locally transmitted cases on March 15, all of them in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. The country’s manufacturing sector, though, is just starting to pick up, with factories running at about 50% to 60% capacity by some measures.

Shipping goods from China to the U.S. by air is also far more expensive than usual due to the ongoing restrictions on passenger flights between the two countries. Goods that might normally have been shipped in the belly of a commercial plane now have to be sent via freight charter, or else take a much slower route by sea freight.

The slowdown is a reminder of how heavily many U.S. companies rely on Chinese suppliers, whether for finished goods or component materials: Procter & Gamble Co., whose brands include Charmin, Pampers, and Tide, warned investors in late February that about 17,600 of its products would be impacted by the disruption in China, where it has 387 suppliers shipping more than 9,000 materials.

“Each of these suppliers faces their own challenges in resuming operations,” Jon Moeller, P&G’s CFO, told analysts. “The challenges change with the hour.”

Products aren’t just ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in the U.S.A.’

The global reach of today’s supply chains helps explain why disruptions are occurring across categories and retailers. In the case of toilet paper, for example, “The raw material used to make the tissue paper you buy at the store is linked by a sophisticated network,” Nick Vyas, executive director of the Center for Global Supply Chain Management at the USC Marshall School of Business, explained in a blog post. “The factory where it’s made might not have enough labor or truck drivers to get the raw material to the factory or product into warehouses, and from there onto shelves.”

On March 15, Consumer Brands Association, the lobbying group representing companies like Clorox and P&G, issued a letter to the State Department and the US Trade Representative expressing concerns about other countries restricting exports to the U.S. as the pandemic escalates.

“Supply chains in the United States are strong, and it is unnecessary... to hoard daily essentials.”

”In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, we have already seen multiple countries enact restrictions on the export of base materials, chemicals, medical supplies, and ingredients,” the group wrote, citing recent restrictions by India, Germany, France, the Czech Republic, Turkey, and Russia on products like pharmaceuticals and protective equipment worn by health care professionals. “It would only require a handful of countries taking a similar approach to quickly result in long-term, critical ingredient shortages.”

Following a call between President Donald Trump and top grocery store and supply chain executives, White House spokesman Judd Deere issued a statement urging Americans to stop stockpiling supplies: “Supply chains in the United States are strong, and it is unnecessary for the American public to hoard daily essentials.”

Companies are working to provide masks and hand sanitizer, but some are struggling

3M, the Minnesota-based manufacturer of N95 respirator masks and other protective medical products, has so far avoided supply chain disruptions by sourcing materials like straps and metal nose clips from regional suppliers and producing the filters in-house. The company has also ramped up production from five days per week to seven in response to the surge in demand.

According to Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, P&G ramped up its shipments of soaps and hand sanitizers significantly in late 2019 and early 2020, with imports increasing 221.9% year over year in the three months to January 31. Competitor Johnson & Johnson increased imports of the same categories by 72.7% during the same period.

Companies with Chinese suppliers often stock up before the Lunar New Year holiday to account for the anticipated slowdown in production, which likely gave some a week or two of buffer inventory to help keep shelves stocked — though not enough to account for what Adobe Analytics found was a 1,400% spike in demand for hand sanitizer between December and January. Even with the short supply, U.S. hand sanitizer sales were up 470% in the first week of March, according to Nielsen.

Purell manufacturer Gojo Industries, which has two factories in Ohio and one in France, says its orders in March have spiked “above and beyond what we had experienced since late January.”

In a March 13 statement, president and CEO Carey Jaros said the company’s “manufacturing facilities are operating around the clock to produce many millions of bottles and refills — which amounts to many billions of uses — of Purell products each day. We are continuing to work to increase our capacity even further to meet this dramatic expansion in demand.”

Gojo controls about 25% of the U.S. hand sanitizer market and did $370 million in revenue in 2018, according to IBISWorld, but other manufacturers have been stepping up fill some of the gaps in recent weeks. Luxury group LVMH is using the factories it typically employs to make perfume and cosmetics for brands like Givenchy and Dior to produce hydroalcoholic gel for French hospitals. Small-batch distilleries are supplementing their product assortments with hand sanitizers that meet the CDC’s 60%-plus alcohol guideline. New York state has turned to prison labor to boost its supply by 100,000 gallons per week.

A spokesperson for Gojo did not specifically address a question about how it determines which retailers to allocate additional inventory to. The statement did, however, say that it prioritizes healthcare facilities and first responders, while maintaining a “steady flow” to distributors and retailers to offer to schools, airports, restaurants, and consumers.

Among retailers, the top of the pecking order will likely be big-box stores and national pharmacy chains, says Capgemini’s Vernon. “If you’re a big enough player, that’s pretty much your hedge against shortages: that you’re such a large outlet and important customer [for a supplier] that you’ll get the first dibs.”

In that case, however, “Even if you did jump up and say, ‘Hey, do you have extra capacity in your plant to go ahead and double my order?’ It still might take 30, 60 days to get to you… most facilities don’t have extra capacity or extra raw materials. They run pretty lean. So the whole chain has to respond.”

Stores are getting new inventory in — it just isn’t staying on shelves for long

In the meantime, major chains are conserving their existing stock of high-demand products by limiting the number of units customers can buy.

On March 12, Walgreens announced that shoppers will be able to buy a maximum of four each of disinfectant wipes and cleaners, face masks, hand sanitizers, thermometers, and gloves. Kroger set a limit of three each of cold, flu and sanitary products per order on March 2, while Walmart has given store managers “discretion to limit sales quantities on items that are in unusually high demand,” according to a post on the retailer’s website.

“We are working to replenish those items quickly, including diverting products to areas of the country where they are needed most and routing deliveries directly to stores,” it continued.

In a March 5 earnings call, Costco Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti shed some light on how the chain of warehouse clubs is handling the floods of customers clearing out whole palettes worth of inventory at a time.

“We’re getting deliveries daily but still not enough given the increased levels of demand on certain key items.”

“We’re getting deliveries daily but still not enough given the increased levels of demand on certain key items,” he told analysts, adding that some of the company’s suppliers “are literally working around the clock to produce and to ship.” Sales at Costco were up 12.4% in February over the year prior, including a 3% bump the company attributed to coronavirus-related shopping.

Even at Costco, though, Galanti acknowledged that customers generally can’t walk in today and find high-demand items like hand sanitizer.

“I would assume that over the next few weeks or several weeks that will abate. But it depends what else happens with the virus itself,” he said.

This uncertainty is one thing all retailers — and people, for that matter — have in common right now.

The more visibility and flexibility businesses have throughout their supply chain, however, the better equipped they’ll be to respond to these disruptions, says Interos’ Bisceglie. In an ideal scenario, if a link breaks at any point along the line — whether due to a shortage of raw materials or a temporary factory closure — a company would be able to quickly shift to an alternate supplier, but that’s rarely the case today.

“Proctor and Gamble probably models out multiple years ahead of how much toilet paper and detergent that they need — and they’ll, I’m sure, have a little bit of fat in there — but when something like this happens, it literally paralyzes the global supply chain because there aren’t people available to work it,” she says. “It’s not something that a lot of us take into consideration.”

While a pandemic like this may be unprecedented, “this is not going to be the last time that business gets interrupted based on the global and interconnected supply chain,” she says, citing the coming effects of climate change — a problem that studies say is exacerbated by America’s demand for toilet paper.

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