OPINIONGeneral Merchandise

One-Ply Reality

Rolling out insights from a most challenging year
empty toilet paper roll
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the sad state of the toilet paper in my home. Where two-ply once ruled the roost, today we’re just as likely to be dealing with a one-ply reality that leaves much to be desired.

On the bright side, even at the height of the toilet-paper hording that gripped the United States in the early days of the pandemic, we never found ourselves without the product necessary to—ahem—do the job. But more than a year later, we still find ourselves settling for whatever is in stock at the local grocery store, often unfamiliar brands of occasionally insufficient quality.

There were periods in the past year, however, where we did find ourselves looking elsewhere to meet our toilet-tissue needs, walking the often-ignored HBC aisle of area convenience stores. Turns out my family wasn’t the only one!

Digging the Details

Not surprisingly, toilet tissue sales in c-stores grew 23% in dollar sales during 2020. Laundry detergent sales increased 20%. Soap was up an amazing 493%!

This was not a year of incremental gains. Spitless tobacco product sales grew 67%. Beer sales were up nearly 14%. Novelty candy sales rose nearly 13%, suggesting consumers were looking for a reason to smile.

But for every remarkable gain, there was a potentially devastating thrashing. CBD-product sales in c-stores saw dollar sales drop 38%. Gum was down a painful 24%. Even reliable segments like bottled water struggled. In this case, water dollar sales dipped 5%, while unit sales dropped 11%, not because consumers stopped drinking water, but because they were buying it in bulk somewhere else. Water sales were up 11% in the grocery channel.

But the strength of this issue of CSP is in the details. Yes, CBD-product sales declined 38% overall, but CBD-enhanced bottled water sales were up 30%! 2020 tested product allegiances and helped pinpoint where consumers are willing to spend a little extra or go out of their way to find an elusive product or product type.

This most unusual past year makes this the most insightful edition of our Category Management Handbook ever. Why? Because the real challenge is: What happens next? Will consumers continue to stock up on case packs of bottled water rather than return to single-serve purchases? Can packaged beer maintain its shine even after bars and restaurants reopen? Bottom line: Are these new behaviors now permanent or will consumers revert back to old habits?

For this issue, we talked to dozens of category managers to get their take on the year past and the one ahead, and their insights are significant. What were they most thrown by? Just like my family’s toilet-paper dilemma, it was out-of-stocks.

We like to say this issue of CSP has a 12-month shelf life, that it’s one to refer to again and again as you consider new products or a category reset. If you still have the April 2020 issue of CSP, I’d recommend looking at these issues side by side. In 2019, cheese snacks were the hero of the salty-snack category, growing more than 4.5% in unit sales. A year later, that same segment declined nearly 9%. How do your store numbers compare? Somewhere in between is the insight for how you should treat that segment going forward.

I hope you find the Handbook as valuable as I think you will!

Steve Holtz is content director of CSP/Winsight Convenience. Reach him at sholtz@winsightmedia.com.

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