Contemplating online toilet paper sales

What Does a 231% Increase in Online Toilet Paper Sales Tell Us About The Future of Online Shopping?


With the arrival of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to the United States, the month of March has been one of the most economically challenging tumultuous times in modern history.

While some parts of the country who had the first coronavirus cases felt an impact earlier in the year, the rest of the U.S. caught up by early March.

In less than a month, the health-protective measures required to enforce social distancing and slow the spread of the virus have taken such a toll on the economy, now some experts estimate unemployment may go from a record low to a staggering mid 30 percentile.

Between the travel industry virtually shutting down, the entertainment and sports industry coming to a full stop, restaurants being forced to close dining spaces, and more employees working from home, shopping has changed as well.

And it happened all so fast that no one was prepared for it, including major national retailers and online juggernauts like Amazon.

Publix Orlando empty shelvesThe most visible part for many consumers over the last few weeks was empty store shelves as everyday products vanished overnight.

This phenomenon of panic buying (hoarding) and buying items out of necessity to adjust to a life stuck at home wasn’t just offline in retail stores but also online.

Anyone that tried to find household items from toilet paper, sanitizing products and bleach; to medical supplies such as protective masks and gloves; or technology items such as laptops and monitors; can attest to how difficult it was to find these items in stock anywhere as the virus news kept getting worse and worse.

Adobe Analytics, through its Digital Economy Index, analyzes over 1 trillion visits to sites and over 100 million SKUs from transactions at 80 of the top 100 online retailers, put this COVID-19 induced online buying frenzy into numbers.

The COVID-19 Impact on Online Retail

  • U.S. consumers spent more money online (*comparing growth from March 13 – 15 compared to the baseline of March 1 – 11); ecommerce in the U.S. shot up by 25%, primarily propelled by online grocery shopping​, which saw an over 100 percent boost in daily sales.
  • Buy Online Pickup In-Store (BOPIS) orders surged 62% Year-Over-Year between February 24 – March 21 as consumers began practicing social distancing to limit their exposure​.
  • Several States experienced a bigger overall ecommerce boost​; New York​, California, Washington, Ohio, Oregon all saw online sales lift by 20% or more, while states like Louisiana, Wyoming​, Kansas, Montana​, Tennessee are experienced online sales lift of 15% or less.
  • COVID-19 showed an impact on what consumers bought as orders for computers (laptop, desktop, etc.) increased 40% in sales between March 11 – 25 compared to the March 1 – 10 baseline.
  • Virus protection category products like hand sanitizers, gloves, masks, and anti-bacterial sprays surged 807%.
  • Over-the-counter drug purchases increased by 217% for Cold, Flu, and Pain Relievers​.
  • Toilet paper sales spiked by 231%​ and non-perishable, canned goods, and shelf-stable goods sales increased by 87%​.
  • Even online orders for fitness equipment (such as kettlebells, dumbbells, treadmills, etc.) experienced a 55% boost.

Note: Unless noted otherwise, data is for sales between January 1 and March 11, 2020.

Will COVID-19 Crisis Have Lasting Impact on Online Commerce?

Every major disaster or economic fallout has some lasting cultural effect and it looks like work from home, online food shopping, and BOPIS could be at the top of the list this time.

While online commerce is already responsible for the retail apocalypse with more major national retailers and brands closing stores and even going out of business, the COVID-19 crisis will have introduced more consumers to segments of online shopping they didn’t use or contemplated.

In online food shopping, Walmart may be the biggest winner when this emergency is over as the company already had an ecommerce grocery focus in its strategy to compete with Amazon.

To many, Amazon’s grocery delivery and pickup strategy is disjointed at times and spread over several brands from Whole Foods Market to Amazon Fresh.

If Instacart, the independent grocery shopping and delivery service that works with regional and national supermarket chains, wasn’t a household name before, it will be now.

The longer the COVID-19 emergency lasts, more consumers will shift to buying food online that may open up new avenues even for small businesses, including niche ethnic and specialty foods retailers.

Restaurants that used to loath take-out orders may find consumers are happy to order unique and upscale dinners online for pickup or delivery. This is another online commerce segment that was showing growth, but with the COVID-19 emergency may see a lasting boost.

Short and Long Term Views

In the short term, there are mostly losers in retail and online commerce as businesses that are not in necessity categories are suffering tremendously.

Without a doubt, the economic fall of the COVID-19 emergency on the economy is disastrous. This is brought home by the unpreceded $2 trillion U.S. economic stimulus package passed in near-record time for such a massive piece of legislation.

However, taking the long view, there will be opportunities for businesses of all sizes as consumer behavior will have permanently shifted.

Tech entrepreneurs will design new technologies and apps that enable more businesses to operate online.

The COVID-19 “Stay At Home Orders” are forcing more shoppers to become accustomed to using today’s technologies for online orders in retail segments that used to be outside their comfort zones.

One can only imagine what the future may hold with new technologies that embrace previously underserved retail segments.

While it is paramount to follow all required health and safety instructions and work through a strategy for personal and business financial survival, it is also a good time to look at the future and start thinking outside the box what tomorrow may bring.


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