Toilet paper shortage is not because of supply problem, grocery store expert says

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- There is one thing we all now know about toilet paper that we didn't know before the pandemic: just how little we can survive on.

The demand for paper products is just one of many demands your local grocery store is now trying to meet.

"I've never seen anything like this in this industry," Leslie Sarasin, the CEO of the Food Industry Association, told ABC11 during a Skype call from her Washington D.C.-area office.

That is saying a lot since Sarasin has been in the grocery industry for nearly 40 years, but when it comes to the question of when things will return to normal at your local store, her crystal ball is cloudy.

"The short answer is I don't know, and I don't think anyone else does either," she said.

Sarasin is an expert in the grocery products supply chain.

She is quick to point out this is not a supply problem, it's a demand problem.

She said the supply chain is resilient and working at full steam. It's going to be up to shoppers to get things back on track by returning to how they used to shop.

"If we buy things for what we may need for the next week or so rather than what we might need for six or eight months we will slowly but surely get back to a bit more of a normal kind of availability within the supermarket."

She adds that there are innovative things going on behind the scenes especially among manufacturers of packaged and canned products.

"They can produce much more quickly if they don't produce as many varieties or as many package sizes. And so they've limited the number and variety of products they are producing right now in order to be able to meet the demand," Sarasin noted.

And, yes, toilet paper and paper towel manufacturers are now running around the clock.



Once the hoarding stops, those products should also begin showing up in bigger quantities.

Another innovative idea turned into a win-win for grocers and another segment of the food industry. That idea was a collaboration between the Food Industry Association and the International Foodservices Distributors Association.

Business in the food services industry dried up when restaurants closed.

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"Their members had products, they had resources, transportation, employees and other things that were not going to be used. So we've been able to work together to match those resources up with those in the retail sector," Sarasin said.

Sarasin pointed out that grocers were able to buy up foodstuffs and cleaning supplies no longer needed by restaurants.

The food distributors have also put their transportation system and their suppliers to work to help get more items to grocers.

The move helped grocers and kept food service distribution employees working.

Just a couple of months ago leaders in the grocery industry talked about how online ordering was the new frontier in their industry.

It was something they expected to really ramp up in the next five years.

But, thanks to COVID-19, that end of the business accelerated in just five weeks.

"Just in the past seven days the amount of online shopping has more than doubled what it had been previously," she said.

Sarasin feels we are lucky that end of the industry was already pretty well ensconced.

"They were gearing up for it, fortunately, already. But the kinds of things that we thought would be happening in four or five years are now happening today and we're just adjusting to this new norm."

Sarasin suspects some who have discovered online grocery shopping only because of the pandemic may continue that practice after COVID-19 is conquered.

She said she is proud of everyone in the grocery industry right now but none more so than the employees at your local store.

"They are such heroes as well. I've worked in this industry a long time and I've always been humbled by the sacrifices that many in this industry make to feed the country and the world."

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