business news in context, analysis with attitude

In the wake of the season’s first snowstorm in the nation’s Mid Atlantic region, the Washington Post offers a humorous look at what people buy as the winter forecasts become more dire.

“Since time and TV weather forecasts began, milk, bread and toilet paper -- MBTP -- have been the media stars of every snowstorm, cliches wrapped in plastic,” the Post writes. “Milk certainly qualifies. And bread, too. But toilet paper? Toilet paper doesn't really belong in the holy grocerial trinity of every snow panic.” In fact, the Post notes, it isn’t really a snowstorm unless there is a run on milk, bread and toilet paper.

Except that the evidence this week, as the snow began to fall, suggested that maybe times have changed.

“Yesterday, after predictions of the season's first good storm, spokesmen for the Safeway and Giant grocery store chains said they saw plenty of evidence of hoarding and panic buying -- but no straight-to-the-top-of-the-sales-chart relationship among milk, bread and toilet paper,” the Post reports.

“Compared with a snowless Dec. 5 a year ago, milk and bread sales roughly doubled Monday at Safeway's 100 stores throughout the mid Atlantic region, spokesman Greg Ten Eyck said. Those two products were among the chain's best sellers, he said. Then again, so were bacon, scrapple and eggs (‘People are planning big breakfasts after the snow,’ he said), along with fruit, water, soda, infant formula, Kool-Aid and boneless chicken breasts.” Toilet paper wasn't even in the top fifty in terms of products sold.

The same went for Giant, where spokesman Barry Scher told the Post that “there was nothing special about his company's MBTP index. Everything was moving briskly, he said: bread, eggs, canned goods, luncheon meats, batteries, even -- go figure -- ice cream.”

The Post concludes that maybe, just maybe, the milk-bread-toilet paper connection is a media invention that has become factual just by being repeated over and over. Toilet paper is hard “to fit into this symbolic survival schema. It possibly represents some kind of talisman of civilization, a minimal luxury and comfort when the normal rhythms of civilization are disrupted.”

On the other hand, the Post writes, “Scotch, chocolate and a good steak are pretty good minimal luxuries, too, and you don't hear half as much about them when it snows.”
KC's View:
Maybe we’re just cynical, but when we heard about the major snowstorm that was supposed to work its way up the coast into New England earlier this week, the only thing we did special was make sure the sports car was in the garage and the snow shovels were out of the shed. The Content Kids started planning on what they would do with a snow day if they didn’t have to go to school, and Mrs. Content Guy started rearranging her schedule.

Good thing yours truly didn’t go to any trouble. When we got up the next morning at 5 am to start working on MNB, there had been just a dusting of snow and we didn’t need shovels at all.

One of the things this story makes us think about how the word “necessities” has taken on different meanings in the modern world. Back in the old days (though we’re not exactly sure what “old days” means anymore), maybe milk, bread and toilet paper were what people thought of. But no longer. For some it is ice cream and chicken breasts, for others it is scotch and batteries.

This is an interesting question that could be posed to shoppers that might offer a fresh look at what makes them tick: “What ten items do you always have in your refrigerator/freezer, and what 10 items do you always have in the larder, that you simply cannot live without?”

It is an intriguing question to ponder. Might even get consumers thinking about themselves and their needs differently. Which would allow a retailer to think about the shopper differently.

We’re making our list. Try doing the same thing and see what you come up with. Betcha you’ll surprise yourself with some of your choices.