Eco-Friendly Toilet Paper Startups Have Drawn More Customers Than Ever Before. Can They Keep Them?
There are numerous people squeezing toilet paper from brands other than Charmin today.
With pandemic-stoked panic buying depleting toilet paper stocks from market leaders Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly Clark and Procter & Gamble, parent company of Charmin, consumers scoured the web for alternatives with available inventory. Among the alternatives they discovered are direct-to-consumer startups such as No. 2, Reel, Peach, Who Gives A Crap, Tushy and Bippy selling toilet paper greener than typical staples on retail shelves made from virgin trees. The startups have notched unprecedented sales spikes and gained customers they’re seeking to turn into long-term eco-friendly toilet paper converts.
Reel’s toilet paper supplies were wiped out on March 13. In the weeks prior, it registered day-over-day and week-over-week sales jumps of around 200% and 1,000%, respectively. No. 2’s website sales skyrocketed 3,239% and Amazon sales soared 5,210% this month compared to last month. In addition to Amazon and its site, the brand’s toilet paper sold out at Goop, LuckyVitamin and Saks Off Fifth’s e-commerce outlet. Across the toilet paper segment in the United States, Nielsen estimates sales climbed nearly 213% for the week ended March 14.
“Before this current pandemic, we were on a growth trajectory, but we ran into challenges trying to manage acquisition costs and retention. The biggest challenge was having limited marketing dollars when a lot of people didn’t know about us,” says Derin Oyekan, co-founder and CMO of Reel. “What the pandemic has done for us is put us on the map. A lot more people know about us as an option without us having to spend millions of dollars.”
Amid the pandemic, organic traffic has been the single-largest source of Reel’s site visitation. In the past, it was the fourth-largest source. No. 2’s exposure on Amazon increased after toilet paper from huge consumer packaged goods players was gone. At certain points, it rose to the top of search results for toilet paper because it was one of only a few brands with product remaining. Confronted with a toilet paper shortage, Amazon reached out to No. 2 to check on replenishment, according brand founder Samira Far. She says, “They are now relying on smaller companies because it’s likely a smaller company can restock faster than the larger companies.”
No. 2 anticipates it will have toilet paper again by the end of April or early May, and toilet paper is projected to return to Reel by the end of April. Both brands are significantly ramping up production. To restock, Far says she’s ordered three to four times the volume she would have ordinarily for No. 2, and Oyekan shares Reel has ordered three times its normal amount.
“What the pandemic has done for us is put us on the map. A lot more people know about us as an option without us having to spend millions of dollars.”
Forecasting is tricky for toilet paper brands attempting to assess whether the consumer patterns exhibited as COVID-19 hit the U.S. will persist. However, Far notes toilet paper startups are better off if their forecasts miss than companies specializing in perishable products because their stockpiles won’t go bad. Oyekan says, “We have been able to get credit extended to turn up the dial for inventory. We are trying not to foolishly expect this to be the new normal. It would be great for business if it is, but I would hate to live in self-isolation and quarantine for much longer.”
To retain customers they’ve drawn from the toilet paper frenzy, No. 2 and Reel are depending on customer service, convenience, education focused on their environment propositions and bamboo products they tout as superior to the recycled toilet paper primarily associated with eco-friendly substitutes to toilet paper from virgin trees. Globally, it’s approximated 27,000 trees are destroyed daily to satisfy human toilet paper consumption—and toilet paper is reportedly getting less sustainable as major brands reduce the recycled paper content in it. Considered a renewable resource, bamboo is a resilient grass that grows 3.5 feet a day and can be harvested yearly.
Bamboo toilet paper isn’t perfect. It goes through a water-intensive process similar to the process that traditional toilet paper goes through. Eco-oriented startups are improving the efficiency of the production process, though. Tushy reveals a roll of its bamboo toilet paper requires .59 gallons of water in production versus 37 gallons for a conventional toilet paper roll.
Beyond environment benefits, Far and Oyekan praise bamboo as providing comfortable toilet paper usage. They’re confident consumers with a perception of eco-friendly toilet paper as scratchy and crumbly from past purchases of recycled toilet paper will be pleasantly surprised by bamboo offerings. “We work diligently to try to make sure the product experience is similar to what they could get from a Charmin, Cottonelle or any of those other brands,” says Oyekan. “I’m hoping now that people are exposed to it they will see it’s as good as what they were using previously and, with the convenience of home delivery, they still stick around as forever customers.”
Far believes consumers picking up greener toilet paper during the pandemic will mostly stay with it and continue to buy toilet paper online. “Is it going to be 100%? Probably not, but I think it’s going to be a majority percentage,” she says. “Even if we are not in lockdown two months from now, which I hope we are not, people will realize the ease of having something delivered to their home and will still want to reduce their exposure to the outside world.”