Sunday, September 13, 2009

Buying Toilet Paper on Sale

An analogy that's always stayed in my head is that when toilet paper is on sale, people are excited and rush out to buy as much of it as they can. But when stocks are on sale, people are fearful and try to get rid of all their shares. A little incongruous there? Just maybe.

Speaking of toilet paper, lately, I've been on a quest to buy toilet paper for the bathroom at my uncle's grocery store. Since I'm acting as a corporate procurer of supplies, I've been trying to buy the cheapest toilet paper, softness be damned. (In any case, how do toilet paper manufacturers get those extra-soft tissues for your behind? By cutting down old-growth forest in the Canadian wilderness.)

You would think it would be pretty easy to choose the cheapest toilet paper. All you have to do is the choose the pack that comes with the cheapest per roll. But this is the beginning of a valuation quagmire so stealthily laid by the evil toilet paper companies!

Not all toilet paper rolls are created equal. Some rolls have many more sheets than others. This is something that few people have likely thought about, and it's a stealthy and easy way for companies to increase their profit margins. And those double rolls and triple rolls you see in the store aisle nowadays? That's another way for companies to increase their profits, by fudging the number of sheets that a double or triple roll contains. I haven't even talked about whether some brands are wider than others.

But let's talk about it. Below is a table of data that I collected during a recent shopping trip. (I've cut out a lot of other data to make the table fit.)

Brand Type Rolls Sheets/Roll Sheets/Reg. Roll Cost/Roll Sheets/Dollar
Angel Soft 2 24 352 176 $0.19938 883
Angel Soft 3 9 469 156.33 $0.25111 623
Charmin Ultra Soft 2 12 200 100 $0.31542 317
Charmin Ultra Strong 2 12 176 88 $0.31542 279
Cottenelle 2 24 308 154 $0.24979 617
Meijer 1 4 176 176 $0.29750 592
Quilted Northern 2 12 286 143 $0.29042 492

As you can see, brands differ greatly on how many sheets there are per roll, ranging from a low of 88 sheets per roll to a high of 176. Since Meijer, the generic store brand, which is a regular roll type, has 176 sheets per roll, we can assume that regular rolls originally had 176 sheets per roll. Note that the only brand that also has 176 sheets is Angel Soft double roll -- 20 sheets magically disappeared from the Angel Soft triple roll! Hmm, is that why companies are so eager to advertise double and triple rolls over regular rolls....?

The best way to determine how cheap toilet paper is is to look at cost per sheet. In the table above, I've listed the inverse of that, sheets per dollar; the higher, the better. As you can see, Angel Soft double roll is the cheapest per sheet; incidentally, it is also cheapest per roll. But Cottenelle is second-cheapest per roll and third-cheapest per sheet.

These aren't big changes, admittedly. But think about it from the toilet paper company's perspective: maybe you'll save only a penny or two if you cut off a few sheets per roll, but multiply that by millions of rolls, and you're talking some serious change. Is it a coincidence that Cottonnelle has exactly 7/8 the number of sheets in a regular roll?

This phenomenon of items getting smaller and smaller is nothing new. Ice cream used to come in 2 quart (i.e., half-gallon) containers. Then they became 1.75 quarts. Then they became 1.5 quarts. Wrigley gum used to have 17 sticks per pack. Now they have 15 sticks. It's a tactic that works because consumers are stupid. Don't be one of them.

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