The coronavirus is here and people are panic buying toilet paper. Faced with the idea of being trapped inside without Charmin Ultra, many of us are stockpiling. Stores across the country are selling out and it’s not clear when they’ll be restocked. And now, all over the U.S. and Canada, Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, is out of all but novelty brands of toilet paper in many markets. The company won’t tell us when there will be more.
If you search for “toilet paper” on Amazon you will find that in many (most?) parts of the country, Amazon is out of stock of most all brands of toilet paper, including its own three house brands, Presto!, Amazon Basics, and Solimo. Amazon is also out of stock of Cottonelle, Quilted Northern, and Charmin in many locations. In some locations, Amazon says toilet paper is in stock, but when you click to the product page, it’s not available to ship for several weeks. There is some toilet paper available, almost exclusively from third-party vendors who are shipping from non-Amazon warehouses.
To test this, Motherboard asked people physically located in New York City, California, Washington, Massachusetts, and South Carolina to search for “toilet paper” on Amazon. We also logged out of our Amazon accounts, turned on a VPN in an incognito window, and set our location to Toronto, Vancouver, “U.S. South West,” “U.S. North West,” “U.S. West,” “U.S. South,” and “U.S. South East.” The only place where you could get toilet paper delivered today is in the U.S. North West, where Amazon Prime Fresh members could get Quilted Northern. Some other locations noted that toilet paper could be obtained from Whole Foods, which Amazon owns.
In fact, when we searched for “toilet paper” for Prime members in the “U.S. West,” we were shown a series of products that were distinctly not toilet paper.
The only toilet paper you can reliably get on Amazon right now are novelty, specialty, and prank toilet paper sold by third parties: Can we interest you in rolls of RV soluble toilet paper sold by a third party seller? How about this toilet paper with the poop emoji on it? Trump’s face toilet paper?
When is the toilet paper coming back? Amazon won’t tell us and we’ve asked repeatedly.
Browsing Amazon here in the American South, I still had a few options. Through Prime, I could for example, purchase rolls of compressed toilet tissue tablets. It’s a tube of compressed TP that rides in your pocket until you’re ready to use them. “Just add a tablespoon of water and you've got a luxurious and hygienic wipe ready to use,” said the description. Just $14 for 50 wipes. Only 10 left in stock as of this writing.
If compressed paper designed for camping isn’t your thing, there’s still tons of novelty toilet paper available on Amazon. For $12.99, Amazon will deliver a poop emoji printed roll that makes fun of you for turning 30. There’s paper of all scents—from pumpkin spice to “holiday”—and politicians galore. No matter your political persuasion or country of origin, you can wipe your ass with the politician you blame for all this. Sports fan? Amazon has a crying Lebron James roll it’d love to sell you. It’s 3-ply. Luxurious.
The secondary market for toilet paper is booming. On Ebay right now, a pack of 12 double rolls of Quilted Northern is going for $45. Target normally sells the equivalent of 36 rolls for $9.99. It’s the same for Angel Soft, Charmin, and other popular brands. People are selling excess toilet paper on Ebay for a markup.
This all sounds very frivolous, but points to potentially severe supply chain issues affecting Amazon in the wake of the coronavirus, and suggests that the company may not be able to reliably keep Prime—and its warehouses—up and running and fully stocked as the situation gets worse.
“There has been a tremendous slowdown at our ports,” Barbara Maynard, spokeswoman for Teamsters International Ports Division, a group that organizes drivers and port workers who transport Amazon cargo, told Motherboard over the phone.“It was picking up again a little, but it’s going to drop off again. At any moment our borders and ports could be closed. There’s a tremendous amount of fear among workers we organize who handle Amazon products.”