Editor’s note: The following story includes a paragraph from an Associated Press report without proper attribution. We have concluded this is a violation of our ethics standards. We apologize to The Associated Press and our readers.
Customers shopping at Boise’s Costco store got a rude surprise when they walked to the back of the store on Sunday and discovered the store had run out of toilet paper and paper towels.
It was reminiscent of last spring and summer, when jumbo packs of paper products were snatched up as soon as they were unloaded, leaving most of Costco’s customers empty-handed. Toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies were in short supply nationwide for months after the coronavirus began causing panic late last winter.
Shortages are emerging again as the coronavirus pandemic surges and hoarding returns. A spot check of several Boise stores Tuesday by an Idaho Statesman reporter found inconsistencies from one store to the next.
At Fred Meyer at Overland and Five Mile roads, the toilet paper and paper towel shelves were empty.
Two miles farther east on Overland, Walmart had a good supply. Although some toilet paper shelves were empty, most were nearly full. That store was nearly empty, however, of hand sanitizer.
An Albertsons store at 16th and State Street and the WinCo on West Fairview Avenue had plenty of toilet paper and paper towels in stock.
Several stores have maintained limits placed on customers earlier in the pandemic. Costco limits customers to one package per membership. Albertsons allows two packages of toilet paper, paper towels and napkins per household. WinCo allows the purchase of two packages of toilet paper.
Fred Meyer limits customers to two packages each of bath tissue, paper towels, disinfecting wipes and hand soap products.
In Washington, Albertsons and Safeway stores are limiting the number of customers that can be in a store at a time to 25% of capacity. That follows an order from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Toilet paper comes from paper mills — including a big one in Lewiston — to retail stores through a tight, efficient supply chain. Toilet paper is bulky and not very profitable, so retailers don’t keep a lot of inventory on hand; they just get frequent shipments and restock their shelves, according to research by The Associated Press.
John Furner, CEO of Walmart U.S., said on a call with analysts Tuesday that he had visited stores in several states over the past couple of weeks, and availability depended on the city and state.
“We do see big differences depending on the communities that you are in,” Furner said. “The specific categories where we have the most strain at the present time would be bath tissue and cleaning supplies.”
Walmart said supply chains have not kept up with rising demand, and products have been tough to keep in stock in areas seeing sharp increases in new coronavirus cases.
The United States has recorded more than 100,000 new daily cases of COVID-19 in each of the past two weeks. On Monday, more than 166,000 new cases were reported.
Idaho is among the surging states. On Monday, 1,158 new cases were reported in Idaho, including 983 confirmed cases and 175 probables. Idaho’s COVID-19 death toll sat at 773 people Tuesday.
At the Boise Costco, paper products were back on the shelves Tuesday. The store had stacks of Charmin and Costco’s Kirkland brand toilet paper and Kirkland paper towels.
But it was unclear how long the supply would last, as it seemed that one of every five customers pushing carts through the store had nabbed one or both products.
Spokespersons for Costco, Albertsons and Fred Meyer did not respond to emails from the Idaho Statesman.
The shortages are prompting jokes. On Saturday, humorist Merrill Markoe, a former writer for comedian David Letterman, posted about the shortage on Twitter.
“When I was a young girl, there was a toilet paper shortage, where everyone ran to stores like Costco and bought up as many of the 60-roll packs as they could,” she wrote. “I’m getting to an age where I have trouble remembering the exact year. Not totally sure but I think it was 2020.”
When I was a young girl, there was a toilet paper shortage. where everyone ran to stores like Costco and bought up as many of the 60 roll packs as they could. I'm getting to an age where I have trouble remembering the exact year. Not totally sure but I think it was 2020.
— Merrill Markoe (@Merrillmarkoe) November 14, 2020