Friday, May 9, 2008

Thinking About Toilet Paper

What? You've never thought about toilet paper? If it's not the number one used product in America it has to be in the top five. Toilet paper is the perfect example to look at if we want to illustrate just how complicated shopping for a family has become, and how careful consumers need to be when purchasing products.

Once upon a time shopping for toilet paper was pretty straightforward: there were only a few brands and they all had the same qualities. Not so today. First, is the paper single ply or double ply? Plainly translated, double ply tissue is twice as thick as single ply; you get twice as much paper. But it's not really that simple. How thick is the single ply paper that the double ply paper is twice as thick as? Not every paper is as thick as other papers in the single ply version. Fairly good rule of thumb: the "cheaper" the package of paper, the less well known the brand name, the thinner the ply.

Then there is sheet count. How many individual sheets of tissue per roll? This varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. How big is that individual sheet in square inches? This, too, varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Manufacturers advertise single rolls, and double rolls and jumbo rolls--just what is the difference? Is a double roll from one manufacturer and brand the same as a double roll from another one?

Let's do a case study. You go to the supermarket and find Charmin toilet tissue and Great Northern toilet tissue side by side. Both packages say in big letters that they contain 18 rolls of tissue. The Great Northern says it has 18 double rolls to equal 36 regular rolls. The Charmin says it has 18 Big rolls to equal 36 regular rolls. The Great Northern says it is quilted and super absorbent. The Charmin says "our softest touch and most absorbent." So both packages of tissue are the same, right? Wrong.

The Great Northern roll has 352 2-ply sheets per roll. The individual sheet size is 4.5 inches by 4.0 inches. The whole package contains 792 square feet of tissue. The Charmin roll has 200 2-ply sheets per roll. The individual sheet size is 4.27 inches by 4.0 inches. The whole package contains 427 square feet of tissue. Neither package says how thick the paper is, although you could figure it out if you were mathematically inclined.

How much toilet paper is used per use? Some sociologist could probably get a doctoral dissertation out of this one. Most of us have no idea of how many sheets we use at one time. Because regular facial tissue tends to clog our plumbing up, we can't use it for Shabbos. No way am I buying those awful prepared tiny commercial packaged pre-cut toilet paper sheets, so I tear up a roll of toilet paper and put it in a zip plastic bag for Shabbos use. When I first did this last year I had no idea of how many sheets to include in one torn off piece. I finally came to a "three times around the spool" measurement and tore accordingly. Some in the house complained that the resulting paper was "too much" for regular use; others complained it was "not enough" for regular use. Go ahead, tell me how much is enough for regular use? Some of it is going to depend on how thick and how large the individual squares of tissue are. You might need more of a tissue that is thinner per ply or smaller per sheet. In short, do you have any idea just how much toilet paper is actually used per use in your home? (And I'll bet you've never cared before either.)

So there you are in the supermarket and you are trying to save money. One 18 roll double package is on sale. You reach for it automatically--the price is so much cheaper then the other brand. But is it? Use the example above and you will see that cheaper is relative. If the Charmin is on sale for $1.00 cheaper than the Great Northern, is it really a bargain? What about at $2.00 cheaper? Or $3.00 cheaper? (Just a small note here: do not automatically think that the store brand is going to be cheaper than the named brands. In many cases it is not.)

Now imagine that there are 4 or 5 major brands that are sold in the supermarket. And imagine that each brand has at least 4 or 5 ways of packaging their tissue. Some are single rolls, some double and some giant. Some have 4 to a package for each size, some 8, some 12, some 18, some 24, some 36. All have different numbers of sheets per roll and different measurements per sheet. Some are quilted, and some are not. Some are extra absorbent, and some are not. Some are super soft, and some are not. And not all sheets in one brand are the same size or the same number of sheets depending on their packaging.

Getting the picture? We are talking about toilet paper here. Should not take rocket science to buy some. Or maybe it does. What looks like a bargain may not be. What doesn't look like a bargain may well be. Now imagine that you have 40 items on your shopping list, and at least 20 of them are going to be "toilet paper-like" in their variety of sizes, shapes and dimensions. Just how much are you going to be able to save or how much are you going to overpay if you don't investigate all the details of the products?

On a shopping trip yesterday I had to buy some of those "toilet paper-like" items. My savings, by doing a comparison of brand against brand, size against size etc. amounted to $21.00. I would have paid $21.00 more if I had just picked up the package that seemed to be the bargain. Multiply that times 52 weeks and you see "real" money showing up.

Shopping today is not as simple as it once may have been. The pennies of difference between different brands and between different packages of the same brand add up to real money, money that could be used elsewhere.

Oh sheesh, it's just toilet paper you say. Keep thinking that way and you just might be flushing your vacation money down the toilet, or maybe that new stove you need, or that book you would like to buy, or that roast you can't afford.

They didn't tell me in graduate school that some day I would be writing about toilet paper. Goes to show that universities don't teach you everything you have to know.


Anonymous said...

Two comments:

1) To dismantle a roll of toilet paper for Shabbos use, take a real sharp scissors and cut down one side of the roll. You may need to make a few passes, but it sure beats unfurling the roll and tearing as you go!

2) So which brands gave you the best value? I was hoping that was going to be in your punchline. (Or maybe I missed it?)

Have a good Shabbos.

ProfK said...

Thank you for that suggestion. Just keep in mind that some people are going to use two or three of those resulting pieces instead of just one. Some uses of toilet paper require more paper than others; apparently the two sexes use the paper differently as well. If you have more males than females in your house you are also going to use less toilet paper. Enough said.

The bargain was the Great Northern. Even when not on sale it costs the consumer less. If both tissues are regularly priced at $9.00 per package of 18 double rolls, the Great Northern contains more sheets, bigger sheets and gives you many more uses then the Charmin, almost double the square footage. The Charmin would have to have a regular price of no more than $6.00 for the package to equal the same amount of the Great Northern package. Those Great Northern packages were on sale for $6.00. I bought two packages. For $12.00 I got the equivalent of three packages of Charmin, which would have cost me $27.00 to equal the square footage of the Great Northern, a $15.00 dollar difference.

If Charmin would have been on sale for $6.00 I would have had to buy two packages just to equal one of the Great Northern at its regular price. That "sale" would have cost me $3.00 more than paying regular price for the Great Northern.

Anonymous said...

Well at least now I know why toilet paper in my house seems to disappear so fast. I always compared the number of rolls in a package and the price of the packages but I didn't look at the sheet size or the footage. The brand I use, a store brand, comes out about like the Charmin. It's cheaper then the big name brands but if I'm using twice as much then it isn't cheaper for using and I'm paying more. Just estimating on the year, I'm overpaying on toilet paper by about $80 or $90 dollars, and that is just one item.

Dave said...

Scott 1000 rolls.

(Just picked up a bunch of twelve-packs since they were on sale for nearly half off, and it's not like they go bad...)

Anonymous said...

When I run out of facial tissue I rip two squares of toilet paper for shabbos. If you need more, duh!!! just take two, or three. But sometimes I just need to wipe something off the sink or on the mirror. So, that two square piece is more than enough.

Anonymous said...

You also have to keep checking those packages you buy because the manufacturers are always changing how much they put into them. Those Dixie disposable drink cups I like to have around have not only gone up in price but they are only putting in 80 cups instead of 100. Definetely cheaper products out there even when Dixie goes on sale. And those packages of raw things like beans or rice, some of the packages are still 16 ounces to a package, and some have gone down to 15 ounces or even lower. Look at the tissue boxes--some have 250 in them, some 230, some 210. But the box sizes have stayed the same. Don't go by your eye alone. The price may not have gone up but you are getting less for the same money.

Anonymous said...

A good point, that the packaging differences are how the manufacturers get you. When Coke brought out their new bottle a while ago they advertised it heavily with its advantage of being easy to hold and pour from. It was user friendly. Look at how many ounces that bottle holds and then look at the larger two liter size. Our market had the two liter on sale this week at 4 bottles for $5. The regular price of the small bottle is $1.25, same as the big bottle on sale. Regularly that big bottle costs about $1.59 to $1.69 a bottle. It still comes out cheaper when you look at the contents then the smaller bottle. But people grab the smaller bottle because it must be a bargain or cheaper because its smaller. Whether or not we should still be drinking soda is a different idea to discuss.

Anonymous said...

" packaging differences are how the manufacturers get you"

Cf the recent orange juice swindle in which some companies, under the guise of giving a better, more stable container, reduced the amount of product from 64 to 59 ounces.

Anonymous said...

One of our local super markets got into trouble with the size/price ratio. They were selling half gallons of creamer at $5.00 and quarts of the same creamer at $3.99. They didn't put them right next to each other on the shelf so it was hard to see and compare the prices. When some people complained to the manager about the difference in price he told them that it was because of the difference in the package size--it cost more for the half gallon container. When it was pointed out to him that that would make the quart cheaper, not more expensive he walked away. Someone who owns one of those weekly shopper printing companies put in a full page ad telling consumers about the prices and about the story that was given for the prices. He didn't say don't shop at the store but that is what happened anyway. A lot of people came and told the manager that they won't shop where they get cheated. A few weeks later the price of the quart was advertised at $1.99 a quart. It pays for buyers to complain, complain a lot and complain in numbers. It can help to boycott a store or chain for even a day or two. And it for sure pays to compare prices and know what you are really getting.

Anonymous said...

Dave, just got this off the web about your scott tissue:
# OF SHEETS: 1000
# OF PLYS: 1
MEASUREMENT: 3.5" x 3.5"
SQ. FOOTAGE: 225 sq.ft.
COLOR: white

Even at half off, not the greatest of bargains, although it sure looks like it. One local market had the 12 packs for sale, choice of single ply or double ply, 1000 or 500 sheets per roll. But look at the sheet size and the square footage when compared to the two papers in the posting. You're going to need to use more, lots more of the Scott to get the same "coverage" as some other brands. And the site where I got the information off of rates the scott tissue as scratchier and not as soft. Shouldn't feel bad though--I bought this "bargain" also, before I read the post here. And my husband was not happy with the new paper. Sigh. Go know.

Anonymous said...

My first reaction was stop nickle and diming because the hours expended on saving the pennies could be better used on finding solutions to the problem of finances that would save more money. In my field we do a cost/benefit analysis for every project that tells us what is really worth the effort and what is not. My smart wife changed my mind for me.

She told me that I was right and she would no longer spend hours a week trying to compare all the various items we use and she buys on the penny and nickle level. Why waste a few gallons of gas going from store to store when all you save is a little money each week?

Then she told me, since finance is my area, that she saves, over the course of a year, about $6-7 thousand dollars by shopping her way. Since I had said that is not a good use of her time she told me it is now my job to make up that difference in a better way. She suggested I might want to work overtime every day, take on more clients and work a longer day or forego any vacation and work those days.
So I really looked at those small savings and my wife is right that they add up to a lot. I set her up a spread sheet for price comparisons on the computer which is reducing some of the time spent.

Don't think I'm going to laugh quite as heartily any more when I see a post on toilet paper.

miriamp said...

ProfK, I too was going to say that we just tear it into 2 square pieces, so that people can use as many or as few of those 2 square pieces as needed. Still have to convince the toddlers to use less toilet paper in general, but that's its own issue.

And my husband does the grocery shopping, because he actually knows (with shopping list software on his Palm to help) the best price on each item in each store, so he knows what to buy where. No, he won't make a single trip to one store for one item, but he knows which items are "close enough" or the same price elsewhere to know what he should get there. (And he probably even pays attention to square footage on the toilet paper.)

Whereas I would take too long, buy whatever I needed, have to deal with having multiple kid with me, and spend too much on gas to get there and back because I drive the big van that actually fits all the kids.

Anonymous said...

I agree miriamp that trying to shop with all the kids along and still take my time to compare prices or go to more then one store doesn't work for me. My husband also does some of the shopping for us, with a list we have prepared of what is on special where or when he comes home and watches the kids I do the shopping.

A friend and I do this which could also help. We alternate which market we are going to. She picks up double the specials where she is shopping and I pick up double the specials where I or my husband am shopping. We both get the specials without having to shlep to two markets. It helps that we are both on the same block so it's no problem to split up the extra items.

Anonymous said...

I like that idea of splitting the shopping in different places. My friends and I basically shop in the same places and we end up running around all over chasing the bargains. It's a lot easier for me to put 4 of an item in my wagon and go to 3 fewer places then to put in only one item but go to four places. I'm going to mention this one to my friends and see if we can work it out.

Anonymous said...

It really is the little things that count. By itself toilet paper may not make or break a budget, but add the savings in shopping smart for toilet paper to shopping smart for tissues, plastic food bags of all types, garbage bags, foil papers, foil pans and all those little items that are part of the basic supplies in most homes and the savings add up to money. Now do that for cleaning supplies and laundry supplies. Now add in drinks of all kinds. And then add in food supplies of all kinds. The savings are enormous. So yes, I guess you need to start with one item and toilet paper is a necessary one.

Scraps said...

My friends all used to make fun of me for being a bargain shopper and knowing what things were on sale where. "Scraps is the walking circular!" they used to say. Now I don't have as much time to scour the circulars as I used to, but I still tend to shop around for things--milk is cheaper in one place, eggs in another, produce in a third, etc. And to me, it's worth the extra time and effort to shop around, because it adds up to real savings, whereas most of my friends just throw whatever they want in the cart without paying much attention to value.

However, a note on the toilet paper situation: Personally, I hate Quilted Northern and will use a lot more of it than I will of Charmin because Charmin is much thicker and softer. But most of the time I don't buy either brand--I go for Angel Soft or Target brand. :)

ProfK said...

Scraps, how do those other two brands compare in number of sheets, ply and thickness? Very few of the markets here sell the Angel Soft but if it turns out to be a better by I might try it.

Scraps said...

I know that both Angel Soft and Target are 2-ply, and the Angel Soft site says there are 352 sheets per double roll (but I don't know if they're counting each square as one sheet or two, because they're 2-ply). They're both fairly decent in terms of thickness (not like Scott or anything). I'd tell you about the Target double rolls (which we're using currently), but I'm at work and have no idea what they're like. I'll have to let you know more next time I go shopping for toilet paper, but that's not going to be for awhile because we've currently got 8-9 double rolls left.

Also: On that note, buying in bulk is usually a good idea, it ends up costing less per roll.