Simon Creasey Freelance journalist
Simon Creasey Freelance journalist

The surge in tissue consumption meant an intense focus on operating efficiencies, increasing control of entire supply chains, generational software updates, a catalyst for major investment, and innovation which included creating a healthcare division manufacturing quality approved facemasks. Report for TWM by freelance journalist Simon Creasey.

When the Covid-19 virus started to spread like wildfire through the global population earlier this year a strange thing happened. People started shopping for tissue-based products in their droves.

Supermarket shelves were emptied of toilet roll, kitchen roll and facial tissues as consumers prepared for government enforced lockdowns. And as news of this stockpiling spread, consumers rushed out to panic purchase supplies of tissue-based products, which put an even greater strain on supply chains and saw shelves emptied of stock as quickly as they were replenished.

So what impact did this have on producers of tissue-based consumer and AfH products? Has the way people shop the category changed for good? And with many countries globally enforcing second, tiered and regional lockdowns over the last few weeks what does the future outlook for the sector look like? 

Tissue World Magazine spoke to a number of manufacturers who operate in the UK market and overseas to find out the answers to these questions.

Like many manufacturers, when it became apparent back in the spring that supplies of tissue-based products were being placed under great strain, Northwood Paper Sales sprang into action. It realigned the capacities of its machines to maximise production and respond to customer requirements, says Paul Fecher, Chairman at Northwood.

“We were able to utilise all our factories, consumer and away-from-home to respond to the unprecedented call for additional product,” says Fecher. “Using or UK mills and our global supply chain we turned on supplies of both virgin tissue as well as responding to the requirements for recycled wiping products in historically unprecedented volumes.”

Thankfully for Northwood the timing of the lockdown and the panic buying that ensued came shortly after the business had completed investments in new converting equipment and had increased its paper-making capacities in the UK and Spain.

“We also increased our production of folded hand towel capacity having installed three additional converting lines, perfect timing, for the now focus on hand drying with paper as opposed to air born germ spreading electric hand dryers,” says Fecher.

“With our focus on operating efficiencies and being in control of our entire supply chain and distribution, including our own transport operations, we were able to flex our production and distribution networks to absorb the increase in customer demands, either from our buffer stocks or additional outputs.”

It was a similar situation at Better All Round, manufacturer of Ora household towels in addition to a number of other tissue-based products. The company was able to keep pace with demand by improving efficiencies internally, according to Oday Abbosh, company co-founder and Chief Executive.

“We did all the stuff that you’d expect sensible manufacturers to do,” says Abbosh. “So we reduced the number of SKUs in manufacturing and we optimised the factory to get as much production and as much capacity out in the market.”

Another company that saw a major leap in demand when the first lockdown restrictions kicked in earlier this year is Accrol Group. “Demand in the first lockdown was up to a 10x bigger weekly, which meant that all UK tissue supply was exhausted, but this ‘false’ demand was driven by the way re-stocking computer software works in the retailers,” says Gareth Jenkins, Chief Executive. 

“This process has now been addressed across much of the supply chain and for the second lockdown and increased demand, Accrol was in a very good position with both stock and machine availability.”

Manufacturers of away-from-home products also saw a similar increase in orders as companies producing tissue-based consumer products. “We had a massive surge in inquiries and a massive amount of orders,” says Khalid Saifullah, Managing Director at Star Tissue UK. 

“However, things fizzled out very quickly and demand was constrained because obviously schools, hotels, hospitality, leisure and food outlets were all shut down, which is a large part of our business.”

Saifullah says orders picked up again in August, which coincided with the UK government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme that saw thousands of people take advantage of cheap restaurant meals.

“Usage went up quite dramatically [in August] and that has continued as things have started to open. Even though the [food and beverage] sector is not fully open, the general usage of the products has gone through the roof.”

In the away-from-home sector he says sales have been fueled by enhanced cleaning regimes in hospitality venues, with operators moving from reusable cloths to disposable wipes. A similar thing occurred in the consumer sector as shoppers rushed to buy anti-viral wipes and facial tissues to contain the spread of the virus. Abbosh says his company, which was already enjoying strong growth pre-Covid, saw a strong uptick in sales as the pandemic took hold. “Sales of our antiviral facial tissue just went through the roof and that comes back to people’s desire to be much more focused on hygiene,” he explains.

Initially some people feared that the stockpiling that took place in the spring might result in sluggish sales going into the summer as people worked through piled up supplies. However, these premonitions have not come to pass.

“What people sometimes lose sight of is the issue with the lockdown is the kids who would have gone to school and used the bathrooms at school are now using the bathrooms at home and the parents that would have gone out to work and used the bathrooms in the offices are now using the bathrooms at home, so the consumption in households has gone up,” says Abbosh.

In addition to toilet roll usage per household increasing significantly over the last few months so too has usage of kitchen roll and facial tissues. “On the facial tissue front guess what – the government’s been telling everyone hygiene, hygiene, hygiene, so the usage of product has increased because of hygiene awareness, and rightly so given the pandemic,” says Abbosh. “Similarly, with kitchen towel people are much more sensitive to hygiene in the home and therefore we fully expect the use of kitchen towel to increase. Those are potential habit changes that will continue and I don’t think they’re going away anytime soon.”

This projected increase in future demand for tissue-based products has been the catalyst for investment and innovation in the sector. Abbosh says his company has been working on new product lines for the last 18 months or so and recently launched a new anti-viral product that it is currently speaking to retailers about. He thinks we will see “more innovation in that space”.

As too does Saifullah, who increased his company’s production capacity earlier this year as part of a pre-planned investment programme. Star Tissue has just introduced a new Sirius advanced range of paper cleaning products and he’s looking to invest more heavily in the production of hand towel products.

“One of the things we’re seeing is people are washing their hands more often and a lot of people are replacing hand dryers, which have been found not to be very clean, to roll towel and hand towels,” says Saifullah. “To fulfil this new demand, which I think will continue, we’re looking at creating our own UK manufacturing facility making hand towels because the UK is not really good at that at the moment and a lot of it currently comes from Europe. So we’ve agreed an investment plan for a hand towel division to make hand towels here in the UK.”

Northwood also spied an opportunity to capitalise on the changing demands imposed by the pandemic and has invested in its healthcare division, which now manufactures a CE certified range of facemasks, “which complement our sanitising products and dispensing product range all targeted to protect and combat against Covid-19 both at home and in the work space,” says Fecher. He adds that the company has its own “in-house new product development group working on innovations to improve all areas of operations”.

In addition to developing new products all manufacturers of tissue-based products are focused on ensuring their existing infrastructure allows them to meet any surge in demand from stockpiling consumers who are worried about future lockdowns.

In the week prior to the November lockdown imposed by the UK government, trade magazine The Grocer reported toilet roll sales increased by 43% as consumers were concerned that shops might run out of supplies. Manufacturers rushed to reassure consumers there was little danger of toilet rolls running out.

Kimberly-Clark issued a statement to say it had 100 million toilet rolls stored in UK warehouses alone: “We want to assure our consumers that Kimberly-Clark is doing its best to help ensure a steady supply of product to stores, and we’re working closely with our retail partners and customers to understand their current needs and keep store shelves stocked,” says Arist Mastorides, President of Family Care for Kimberly-Clark North America. 

“We have plans to address the increased demand for our products, while keeping our employees healthy and safe. This includes accelerating production to help meet these needs. We always encourage our consumers to shop normally to help stores keep up with demand.”

While generally the outlook for manufacturers of tissue-based products looks healthy, the sector is not without challenges. Although it’s anticipated household usage of toilet and kitchen roll products will continue to rise as people carry on working from home, sales of facial tissues, which traditionally increase during winter months, could fall as a result of measures implemented to stall the spread of the pandemic.

“You have social distancing measures in place,” says Abbosh. “In schools they’ve become so focused on hygiene that this winter we probably won’t see as many children in schools catching bugs and bringing them home to mum and dad, and then you’ve got enhanced cleaning regimes everywhere and people using hand sanitiser left, right and centre, so you’d expect that will help reduce the number of germs and bugs being passed around and that might actually result in perhaps not as much facial tissue being used.”

Issues such as this aside Abbosh is optimistic about the future. As too is Saifullah. “It has been hugely challenging for the whole market, but with these challenges come new opportunities and I think those companies who are thinking ahead and who are investing to grow will do well, because I think there’s going to be some really good opportunities in the new year. Cleanliness and infection control are much more on the agenda now than they have ever been,” he says.