How one SC toilet paper maker is adapting to the coronavirus rush

March 23, 2020

By Jessica Holdman | Charleston Post Courier

Shoppers searching for toilet paper these days often find empty shelves with panic buying amid the international COVID-19 pandemic.

Many stores have capped how much customers can buy at once. And Gov. Henry McMaster pleaded with residents this week to leave enough goods for everyone.

“People of South Carolina, be courteous; be smart. We don’t need to hoard all of these supplies. Let your neighbors have access to them as well,” McMaster said.

At a Columbia Food Lion on Thursday, Octavia Beadle and Kelly Greene loaded up on snack items to share with coworkers who still had to report to the office. 

“There’s not a whole lot to choose from,” Beadle said.

Greene had been lucky enough to find toilet paper early last week. She’s been sharing some of that supply with friends who have none.

Chester County’s Morcon Tissue, which makes bulk toilet paper used in restaurants, hotels, factories and stadiums, took orders for 90,000 cases last week — about 2½ times the normal demand, spokeswoman Tori Raccuia said. 

Most of the product made at Morcon is shipped out via distributors, but the company sells online, she said. So some of the uptick in sales appears to come from consumers choosing to buy the commercially-geared paper out of desperation. 

“The online business is picking up,” said retail analyst Burt Flickinger of Strategic Resource Group, not just from consumers but from smaller independent retailers who don’t have the supply chain access of major companies.

He said there’s also tremendous opportunity in the commercial supplier market to sell to large retailers to fill in supply gaps.

Morcon’s South Carolina plant, located 45 miles north of Columbia in Great Falls, is one of at least five manufacturers making toilet paper in the Palmetto State.

The others include Softex Paper, headquartered on the Caribbean island of Curacao and has a facility in Rock Hill; First Quality Tissue, a New York-based firm with a facility in Anderson; Cascades Inc., a Canadian company with a plant in Barnwell; and a Kimberly-Clark plant in Beech Island.

First Quality Tissue, which according to its website sells retail products largely to discount stores, declined comment. Cascades and Softex officials did not responded to emails or calls from The Post and Courier.

The state also is home to a number of paper mills that could benefit from increased production.

Family-owned Morcon, with headquarters in New York, has been doing business in Great Falls, a small town of about 2,000 people, for over 15 years. It employs employ 65 people at the plant.

In addition to the South Carolina plant, Morcon’s sites in New York and Oklahoma are operating at full capacity, raising production to meet the buying frenzy.

“We’re very well positioned to meet the surge in demand,” Raccuia said. Whole shifts could be dedicated to making toilet paper if needed.

U.S. toilet-paper sales rose 60 percent for the week of March 7, compared with the same period a year ago, according to the latest Nielsen report.

But just because people are buying extra toilet paper, doesn’t mean they’re likely to use it all. By comparison, sales of hand sanitizer, a product being put to use heavily, are up 470 percent, Nielsen reported.

Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific, also has seen demand for its consumer products double but expects its commercial sales to decline as travel plans are canceled and companies switch to work-from-home policies, according to Forbes.

With the demand, Raccuia said Morcon is considering other market segments to capitalize on the increase in sales. She said a lot of what Morcon makes, like some of the more conventional toilet paper used in hotels, has the same size roll to fit at-home toilet paper spindles. 

Chris Raccuia, vice president of operations and Tori’s brother, said the distributors Morcon works with have also been working to satisfy retail need.

Shipping and stocking shelves has caused some of the bottleneck, manufacturers have said.

In recent years, many wholesalers and distributors, to increase profit, have cut inventory kept on hand, Flickinger said. Wholesalers also share supply lines. This has put them behind in responding to the public health crisis the virus has caused.

The most prepared have been those with their own warehouses, truck fleets and drivers — The Kroger Company, Walmart, Lowes Foods and Lowe’s, as well as BJ’s Wholesale Club and Ingles Market.

“Instead of just one truck per store per day, they can do three to five trucks per store per day,” Flickinger said, picking up goods as they come off the assembly line and shipping directly to stores.

But morning restocks have been lasting, on average, only a couple hours as people see others stockpiling and are prompted to go out and do the same, exacerbating the problem, Flickinger said.

“There’s a part of the public that is in a somewhat understandable state of panic given even the most reliable stores are out of stock from 9 in the morning to 11 at night,” he said.

He also points to the fact, with more people working from home, product is being consumed there rather than offices, restaurants and other commercial settings. And, before the crisis, more than half of the dollars people were spending on food was in restaurants.

“Now we’ve suddenly gone from 49 percent to 95 percent food consumed at home,” he said.

The toilet paper market is typically a stable one, only growing a couple percentage points a year, Tori Raccuia said, mirroring population growth. And Morcon is a small player.

“But at times like these we’re able to pick up some of the crumbs and get a lot more business,” she said.