How the pandemic could disrupt the toilet paper industry

October 27, 2021
6 minutes read

The toilet paper industry sailed to new heights in North America over the last 18 months, as the pandemic boosted sales of category leaders and niche players. Small challenger brands are rolling their increased profits into expanded promotions and category distribution, suggesting that in the recovery, they will be a bigger thorn in the side of big brands.

Prepare for a more dynamic competitive environment

Pondering a future in which some paper brands could falter amid post-pandemic competitive forces might seem out of step with the here and now. After all, the pandemic caused brands of every size and consumer inclination to grow as demand reached an all-time high.

However, it’s also important to remember that some challenger brands saw their first taste of rapid growth because of COVID-19. That’s a hard thing to let slip away.

As we enter the pandemic recovery, they will do all they can to protect their newfound position and be a more persistent thorn in the side of both market leaders and their fellow niche competitors.

Eco-niche brands will become bolder and go on the offensive

To illustrate, No. 2, a 100% bamboo toilet paper, saw 1,643% growth in value sales on Amazon in the early days of the pandemic. The company is using this success to expand its reach and bolster promotions that emphasize its point of difference. Bamboo and a paper wrapper printed with soy ink allow the company to talk about being 100% natural, tree-free and plastic-free.

However, No. 2’s promotions extend beyond sustainability. It also discusses how bamboo toilet paper is strong and silky. More uniquely, it promotes how the fiber eliminates “butt crumble,” a trademarked term describing how bamboo is less likely to leave lint residue on the user’s bottom.

Competitors should take note of this strategy because as big brands become greener, most eco-niche brands lose their point of difference. Those that survive, however, will outperform, not in spite of their natural status but because of it.

Defunkify showcases a lesson from the laundry category

Defunkify detergent is an all-natural product with roots in a University of Oregon research program. Defunkify launched in 2017 as a sportswear detergent that is intended to remove sweat stains and odors. It also creates a barrier that shields fabrics against odor-causing bacteria for several days.

This gives the brand unique credibility as a pre-travel detergent since clothing remains fresh after multiple wears. What’s more, the brand’s protease enzyme can deactivate and remove COVID-19 from fabric.

In a sense, Defunkify represents a more complete evolution of natural brands because, if its claims hold up, it doesn’t just perform on par with mainstream brands but actually provides unique benefits.

While such differentiation may be harder to achieve in the paper category, challenger brands that create novel benefits will invite imitation and often acquisition.

Bidets make a disruptive splash in the US

The pandemic created toilet paper shortages, but a side effect of those shortages is a growing appreciation of bidets – and there’s a lot of room for growth. In Japan, bidets have 81% penetration, yet bidets are in just 12.1% of US homes according to a survey by Bespoke Surgical. However, most consumers want one. Nearly two-thirds of US respondents say they will pay up to $125 for a bidet or bidet attachment. Steady price reductions suggest that wish could soon be a reality.

The impact of the pandemic can’t be overstated. According to Japan-based Toto, the world’s largest manufacturer of toilets, it took just two weeks for its US division to sell out of bidets in March 2020. Toto credits toilet paper shortages for the driving trial of its bidets but credits the cleaner bidet experience for changing minds. Tushy, another bidet maker, claims its sales were up tenfold during the same period. Further illustrating the soaring demand is that “bidet” was the 20th most searched term on Amazon in March 2020, just behind toilet paper and face masks.

While this growth was fueled by toilet paper shortages, it was enabled by washlets, which are bidet toilet seats that can be mounted onto most existing toilets. These innovations make bidets significantly more affordable. They’re also becoming more available; today, Kohler and American Standard sell them.

How Mintel Trend Drivers show the disruptive potential of bidets

Mintel Trend Driver, ‘Experiences’

Mintel’s ‘Experiences’ Trend Driver looks at the consumer resolve to gain stimulation from purchases. Toilet paper is a low involvement category. That’s why a device that reduces toilet paper usage, while creating a more engaging bathroom experience, is worth watching. Heated seats, warm water cleansing and warm air drying are becoming standard on bidet toilets.

Brands that offer a fresher, cleaner feeling bring their products into the realm of experiences. Using a bidet can also be a completely hands-free experience, but for a growing number of affordable brands, it’s also an odor-free experience due to integrated air filters that prevent odors from escaping the toilet bowl.

Bidets have the potential to disrupt the toilet paper market. However, disrupting the market through better experiences will grow engagement in a way that toilet paper brands can’t follow.

Mintel Trend Driver, ‘Value’

Mintel’s ‘Value Trend’ Driver discusses how consumers seek tangible benefits from their purchases, and bidets deliver in this area. A recent article in The Guardian claims that bidets reduce toilet paper usage by up to 80%. Some paper is still needed for drying, and that’s especially true for low-end models that don’t blow-dry users’ bottoms. However, brands discuss how buying a bidet is an investment that pays for itself because of the toilet paper savings.

Tushy, for example, says in its brand promotions that the average American spends roughly $182 on toilet paper each year. That amounts to $11,198.88 over a lifetime. It’s rare that trading up brings such significant financial benefits, but if Tushy’s numbers are accurate, then bidets truly deliver value.

Mintel Trend Driver, ‘Sustainability’

Bidet brands promote reduced deforestation because toilet paper is made from trees and as discussed above, bidets can reduce toilet paper usage.

However, brands even tout water conservation. While counterintuitive, the website states that it can take up to 37 gallons of water to make one roll of toilet paper. The site further states that universal bidet use in the US would save 3.6 billion gallons of water per day when compared to the water used for toilet paper production.

Jamie Rosenberg
Jamie Rosenberg

Jamie Rosenberg is Global Household & Personal Care Analyst at Mintel, exploring trends and new business opportunities in household, beauty and personal care categories.

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