Despite vast improvements in the COVID-19 crisis, the supply chain has yet to fully normalize, and it appears that one of the initial signs that problems were afoot is resurfacing, as an essential home god is disappearing from store shelves all around the country.

Toilet paper, once again, is a hot commodity.

As of Aug. 29, the supply of paper products in retail stores selling them was approximately 86%, according to data obtained by The Wall Street Journal from market research firm IRI.  While that may sound like a sufficient supply — and well above the 40% level retailers were experiencing in early 2020 — it's well below what's considered normal for consumer products, experts say.

The dearth of paper products isn't occurring in isolated portions of the country, either — it's manifesting just about everywhere.

Arthur Ackles, vice president of merchandising and buying for the Massachusetts-based grocery chain Roche Bros., told the WSJ that buyers in his store are starting to take notice; some feel like history is repeating itself.

"Customers are asking a lot of questions," Ackles explained.

Ackles added that he was given a heads-up regarding the shortage by the company's main supplier, Proctor & Gamble, although the company said it intends to intensify production to in the coming days and weeks.

The fear is if elevated demand continues, it could lead to another wave of panic buying, in which the problem essentially becomes self-perpetuating; people may not necessarily need it, but because everyone else is snatching up toilet paper, they buy while it is still available.

Toilet paper was in short supply throughout the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.Toilet paper was in short supply throughout the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

Delta variant concerns may be driving demand
While it's unclear why toilet paper, of all things, is what consumers are choosing to buy in large quantities, the surging Delta variant may be what is spurring the toiletries-purchasing blitz. Despite more than 50% of the country being fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, some are coming down with the Delta variant nevertheless, which doctors and health officials say is more transmissible than COVID-19 but not as deadly. There has also been hesitancy among Americans to get the vaccine, as the nation remains well short of the 70% target the Biden administration aimed to achieve by July.

Frustrated consumers have taken to social media to express their exasperation about the rolling shortage, wondering if this is a forecast of what to expect as winter approaches.

Economists cautiously optimistic
Annoyances aside, Lansing Community College Economic Professor Jim Luke doesn't think this availability crisis will be as long lasting. Speaking to Detroit-based NBC News affiliate WILX, Luke noted that because COVID-19 came as a surprise, manufacturers were caught flat footed and had to adjust production after the fact. He suspects that they'll be able to adjust this time.

At the same time, though, given the ongoing struggles of the supply chain, it may be a bit before paper products are plentiful everywhere.

"It's[a lasting shortage] still entirely possible, and I expect that we will continue to see spot shortages of different kinds of littler items and not something big like toilet paper," Luke said.

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