Why are there so many brands selling toilet paper online?
Selling toilet paper on the internet doesn’t seem to make sense. What's the value for a new wave of direct-to-consumer toilet paper brands?
Does it make sense to sell toilet paper directly to consumers? With 10 brands in the Thingtesting directory each selling this household staple online, you would expect the answer to that question to be yes — in reality, it’s an extremely tricky business model to crack.
Aussie company Who Gives A Crap was the first of this crop of digital-first toilet paper brands to hit the scene, launching in 2012. Since then, it has been joined by the likes of other earth-friendly toilet papers Bippy, Peach, Reel, No.2 and more.
Each of the brands sells individually wrapped rolls of toilet paper, often featuring bold colors or beautiful prints. The TP itself is commonly traded on its sustainability credentials, touted as tree-free and plastic-free, made with bamboo and perhaps with an eco-initiative – such as a tree planting scheme in How We Roll’s case, or donations to charities improving sanitation across the world in the case of Who Gives A Crap. But above all, what the toilet paper brands promise is a softer, cleaner, and more convenient wipe, delivered to your door.
But making the math work in a product category that is as highly commoditized as toilet paper is a significant challenge.
To bring the cost per sheet (the unit used to compare the value-for-money of different toilet paper brands) down, direct-to-consumer toilet paper brands have had to employ a number of different tactics. Making rolls as compact as possible, so they contain more sheets, is one way to provide better value to consumers. Selling in bulk also helps make the cost of shipping more worthwhile.
“Shipping is by far the biggest challenge we are facing,” says Lisa Frame, the cofounder of Bippy. “Pricing has gone up significantly during COVID, so we are holding on to our margins for dear life.”
Still, their prices are still higher than the benchmark best value price of 0.25 cents per sheet. Bippy's rolls, for example, come in at 0.6 cents per sheet, while Cloud Paper, a toilet paper brand backed by Gwyneth Paltrow and Ashton Kutcher, costs 0.35 cents per sheet.
Even with these challenges, the toilet paper brands say there are clear reasons to compete with the likes of Charmin, Soft’N’Gentle, and white label store brands’ dominance in the $31 billion toilet paper market.
“For such a massive category, toilet paper has seen little to zero disruption in the past 50 years,” says Frame, pointing out that “Big Toilet Paper” is responsible for an estimated 15% of global deforestation.
Most brands offered in supermarkets, grocery stores and corner shops (the emergency TP shopping destination) are of the “conventional, tree-made variety,” adds Samira Far, the founder of No. 2, and “usually packaged with plastic."
Also working in the modern toilet paper brand’s favor is increased consumer interest in environmentally-friendly products, with a recent Deloitte survey finding that 61% of people are actively trying to cut back on their plastic consumption.
A decade ago, toilet paper was just another boring household purchase. Today, having a stack of individually wrapped rolls in your bathroom isn’t just a way to make sure you don’t get caught short – it’s a shortcut to signaling the kind of conscious consumer you are. How else could you justify paying more for something you're just going to flush away?
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