No one could have predicted the demand the paper category would see when news of a respiratory virus began threatening the U.S. But here we are, still experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, and toilet paper is remaining on shopping lists as a new emergency staple, like milk and bread, across the country.


A few factors contributed to the unexpected early spike in demand – families spending more time at home and panic buying. Customers were worried stores would be shut down or trips to the grocery store would be limited. Not knowing how long your family would be home caused many to hoard. Thanks to our swift action and a strong emphasis on safety, our stores remained open, clean and stocked throughout the pandemic.


We serve more than 11 million customers every day through our in-store, Pickup, Delivery and Ship modalities. In order to support a significant increase in toilet paper sales – seemingly overnight – it took a small army. Led by Kate Meyer, then director of Center Store Grocery Merchandising, the team quickly formed and began strategizing.


Speed matters, but it’s important to not let things get away from you. Having strong leaders like Kate and Jeffrey Stowe, category manager, who empowered the team to make decisions without a fear of failing was instrumental. The team was very deliberate and took a quick pause early on to stop, determine the actual problem they were trying to solve, and then create a process to improve. The “problem” wasn’t only a lack of toilet paper to meet the increased demand. The “problem” was also needing to improve the flow within the supply chain to support the speed and quantity.


One solution was to only ship in full pallets to decrease the time it takes for product to move through our warehouses. We also made toilet paper a Tier 1 allocation – meaning as the product arrived in our distribution centers, it was received in our warehouse then loaded on a truck headed for our stores that very same day. Another win for the team was setting up a COVID-19 inbox where new suppliers could be rerouted from the standard process to rapidly establish them in our vendor system. Where this process traditionally could take weeks, it now takes only a matter of minutes.


Even now, the demand for toilet paper and other paper products remains high. Thanks to our early learnings and our partnership with suppliers to get ahead of issues, we’re continuing to see improvement in our in-stock position in almost all divisions. Everyone involved in even the smallest way has made a huge impact on our customers and their ability to get the products they need, when they need it.


We’re continuing to monitor states’ reopening plans to ensure products are properly allocated to the areas of the country most in need. The distribution of SNAP benefits (or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes known as Food Stamps) also causes a lift in demand, so we’re taking those dates into consideration when allocating products across the country. Thanks to our early implementation of a strategy, we’re now able to more quickly react to opportunities as they arise. We continue to meet with suppliers weekly to discuss supply, outlook, hot markets, etc.


We weren’t perfect in the beginning – or even now. But by following our model to Improve Every Day, cross-functional teams came together to collaborate differently than ever before to make thoughtful and actionable decisions at a speed that’s never been seen in our company. Because of this, we remain a trusted partner in our communities with open, clean, safe and stocked stores when our customers are counting on us the most.