There's a run on dish soap in America. Or wait: maybe there isn't.

I know that's an unsatisfying way to start this, so let's back up. We'll explain what we know -- and maybe more interestingly to me, why we can't be sure what we don't know.

First, the background. Procter and Gamble reportedly told retailers recently that due to some kind of hiccup in its production and supply chain, it would be unable to meet demand for Dawn and Gain brand dish soaps through the beginning of December.

This led to at least one retailer -- Walmart -- posting signs warning customers of the shortage. Making it more confusing was the fact that at least sometimes, the signs stood in front of shelves filled with the product that was supposedly on short supply. 

As an example, Business Insider's Hayley Peterson, reported that a Walmart in Richmond, Virginia posted a sign reading --

"Dish soap is experiencing a national supply shortage, impacting product availability for our customers. These shortages will remain until Dec. 1. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause you."

-- in front of a very well-stocked dish soap aisle. 

The signs sparked "panic and confusion" according to a separate report in The Wall Street Journal, which also said:

The signs at Walmart were posted in stores across the country, often in front of generally full shelves, according to photo and survey data from Field Agent Inc., a Fayetteville, Ark.-based company that enlists shoppers to collect photos of store conditions.

Some stores were noticeably short on Dawn and Gain. 

Just to make things extra confusing, both the Journal and Business Insider ran versions of the same statement from Procter and Gamble, which seemed both to confirm and potentially minimize the shortage:

"We're aware that some P&G hand dish products may be harder to find at the moment. For a brief period, demand exceeded what we were able to supply, but this was temporary.

We value the loyalty people have to our brands, and apologize for this short-term inconvenience. Our team is working around the clock to refill shelves and supply is catching up with demand, so all sizes should be available soon."

So, what's going on? It's worth noting that the U.S. market for dish soap used by hand (as opposed to in a dishwasher) is $1.6 billion a year, according to the Journal.

Procter and Gamble owns 60 percent of that market, and Walmart accounts for 15 percent of its total sales. Quick math suggests therefore that we might be talking about $144 million a year of P&G dish soap at Walmart.

Walmart apparently keeps less inventory in stock than other retailers, so supply chain problems are more likely to affect it than competitors. Still, we're stuck with a simple lack of clarity as to whether P&G can meet the demand.

I think the real takeaway here is simply how difficult it is to predict the future at scale.

Nevertheless, I'll go out on a limb and make one more prediction anyway: Nobody will be disappointed if for Thanksgiving 2019, you stock up on paper plates.

Published on: Oct 28, 2019
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