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Consumers are still struggling to find common household items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes.
Supply-chain experts told Business Insider the supply chains suffered major disruptions but that these products should all return by July or August.
Toilet paper is already starting to come back to store shelves, but the supply chains for cleaning products are more complex because the raw materials are sourced from China, and factories can't just expand their capacity.
The experts urged Americans to buy responsibly when the items return to stores — purchase only what you need, and don't stockpile.
Weeks have passed since Americans first started panic buying and stockpiling key household staples, but store shelves across the country are largely still bare of items like toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and Lysol and Clorox wipes.
Now as some states ease up on stay-at-home orders, and leaders contemplate how to reopen the economy, customers are wondering why stores and online retailers are still out of stock and when they can expect more.
Supply-chain experts told Business Insider that these products would return, fully stocked, to store shelves — but it would likely take until the summertime.
Toilet paper, 90% of which is manufactured domestically, is already reappearing in many stores in small quantities, and most customers can access what they need, according to Patrick Penfield, a supply-chain-management professor at Syracuse University.
But Lysol and Clorox wipes, many Americans' favored cleaning products, pose a bigger challenge and will take until July or August to come back in stock, he said.
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The manufacturers have to ship the chemicals used in the products from China, a process that typically takes four weeks, Penfield said.
On top of that, many factories in China were shuttered for much of the early part of the year because of the double whammy of the Lunar New Year and the coronavirus outbreak, creating supply-chain disruptions that took time to resolve.
"You're talking about a pretty complicated supply chain, and so it's very difficult to be able to ramp up and produce," Penfield said. "The other issue you have is capacity. So even if they were able to get the ingredients, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the capacity to produce more products."
Hand sanitizer is being produced by distilleries, prisons, and cosmetics companies, but it's still hard to find in major chain stores
Hand sanitizer — another product that flew off the shelves in February and early March as Americans braced for the outbreak — poses an unusual conundrum because production has increased globally and even extended into other industries.
In addition to typical manufacturers making the product, a number of cosmetics companies, distilleries, and even prisons are producing hand sanitizer. But customers who shop in major pharmacy or grocery chains will likely still have a hard time spotting the products on shelves or finding them online.
Associated Press/Carlos Osorio
That's because big chains typically like to work with major manufacturers that can supply stores across the country, not small ones that are new to the industry.
"If you're a Walgreens, you don't want to buy from a distillery in Syracuse because that's not going to be able to fill all these stores in San Diego or Fresno," Penfield said. Instead, small mom-and-pop businesses are more likely to buy up the products distilleries are making.
Another problem is that large chains sometimes have to vet their suppliers and ensure the product is safe and effective, Penfield added. That's a challenging process to apply to the dozens of distilleries that have suddenly started making their first-ever batches of hand sanitizer.
Factories can't just increase capacity because demand won't always be this high
The factories making all these household items are operating at capacity, not above capacity, and there's a good reason, according to Seckin Ozkul, a faculty member at the University of South Florida who teaches operations and supply-chain management.
"This is going to go away, and they're going to go back to their regular demand," he said.
Manufacturers can't just pour money into opening new factories and adding new machines because when the demand for the products falls back to normal levels, companies won't see a return on that investment, Ozkul said.
Associated Press/Robert F. Bukaty
And though it might seem like a no-brainer for manufacturers to increase capacity by adding more shifts for factory workers or extending their hours, that strategy could backfire. Proper social-distancing and sanitation guidelines must be implemented on factory floors, or workers could get sick en masse.
But if manufacturers keep plugging away at full capacity, summertime is a safe bet for the supply chains to stabilize and stores to return to their normal amounts of stock, Ozkul said.
"Little by little we see Europe opening up, China getting back into production," Ozkul said. "I'm assuming that probably this is going to linger in May as well, but as you're getting into summer, things are going to get better, and they are going to be able to get those raw materials and all their needs back up."
Experts and manufacturers are pleading with consumers to buy only what they need
Neither Reckitt Benckiser nor Procter & Gamble, the companies that own Lysol and Clorox, respectively, immediately responded to Business Insider's requests for comment on their supply chains. But both brands have addressed the product shortages, issuing statements on their websites urging customers to contact retailers for specifics on when stores will be back in stock.
Both Lysol and Clorox said they had ramped up production to meet unprecedented demand but that stock in local stores would vary depending on the day, store, and region. Both companies also urged customers to buy only what they need.
Associated Press/Bebeto Matthews
Ozkul said going forward, consumer behavior will be an important factor in making sure everyone can access these products. He urged shoppers not to hoard or stockpile these items and buy only the amount they would normally.
"We're not asking them to limit themselves. We're asking them to buy as they were buying before," he said. "Otherwise you are buying the supply of your neighbor."
Separately, the brands, doctors, and the Food and Drug Administration have all reminded Americans to use disinfectant products as the manufacturers advise — not to ingest them. The reminder came after President Donald Trump suggested disinfectants might be used to treat the coronavirus during a White House coronavirus-task-force briefing on Thursday.
"We must be clear that under no circumstance should our disinfectant products be administered into the human body (through injection, ingestion or any other route)," Reckitt Benckiser, which makes Lysol, said in a statement on Friday.
In a Q&A on its website, Clorox wrote: "Bleach and other disinfectants are not suitable for consumption or injection under any circumstances. People should always read the label for proper usage instructions."