'We're not out of paper': Expert cautions against panic buying during second wave
TORONTO -- Despite a steady increase in COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country and reports that panic buyers are once again stocking up on necessities in preparation for another lockdown, a food economist is reassuring shoppers there will be enough supply to meet the sudden demand.
Michael von Massow, a food economist at the University of Guelph’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics who studies the performance of food supply chains, said he is seeing recent reports of “unexpected surges in demand” for certain products, such as toilet paper and paper towels.
While he said he couldn’t understand why consumers were suddenly buying up toilet paper in bulk, von Massow said there are several reasons why paper towels might be in high demand.
Firstly, he said the rising number of COVID-19 cases is making people think about sanitation and they’re using disposable products like paper towels for that purpose. He also said the return to school and work, for some, means that social bubbles – and the risk of exposure to the virus – may be increasing and people are worried about hygiene.
“I think we probably have a better sense of infection control and are doing more sanitizing,” von Massow told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Tuesday. “As we do more sanitizing, we’re using more paper towel, which is driving some of these shortages that we’re seeing now.”
Dino Bianco, the CEO of Kruger Products, which manufactures tissue products, said he believes paper towels are being used as a substitute for disinfectant wipes, which are still in short supply.
“People weren’t thinking about paper towels in March, but as they were cleaning more and cleaning everything,” he told CTV News Ottawa. “Not as dramatic as it was for toilet paper, but we are starting to see a lift.”
As in the springtime when the pandemic began and grocery store shelves were cleaned out of toilet paper and other sanitation products, von Massow said the current shortages are demand-based and not supply driven.
“We don’t have supply-based shortages. We have unexpected surges in demand that weren’t within our forecasts and it just takes a while for the system to catch up,” he explained. “We’re not out of paper. We’re not out of trees. We’re just short on ready-made paper towels sitting in inventory.”
Bianco said Canadian manufacturers are working around the clock to meet the demand with suppliers beginning to ration paper towel shipments.
While von Massow said he’s confident the system will catch up “very quickly,” he said he’s concerned about the ripple effect of shoppers seeing emptier shelves and buying products they don’t need because of it.
“It feeds on itself,” he said. “We hear news reports that we’re short of paper towel, we see maybe our store having not as much as it should, and when we do see it, we buy way more than we need.
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
It’s not just paper towels, either. The food economist said this mindset can spill over to other things so that consumers start stocking up on other products after they see that one item is low in stock.
“These things can sort of accelerate just because of this psychological fear of running out, even though the system is going to catch up relatively quickly,” he said.
For anyone who may be concerned about the emptier shelves during their next visit to the store, von Massow reiterated that the system will recover quickly because they are demand-based shortages and not supply-based ones.
“It will catch up,” he said. “Look back at what happened when there was a much more profound shock to the system in wave number one… how quickly things caught up again.”
While there may not be the same range of choice in paper towels or toilet paper during this period of increased demand, von Massow said there will still be product on the shelves.
“The system worked and it will continue to work,” he said. “While there may be some bumps in the road, we are going to be fine from an access to food and cleaning supplies perspective.”