How the “free market” in toilet tissue tricked you

Sometimes you have to cringe when a Capitalism fan praises the wonder of the “free market.”

For example, “free market competition lowers prices…”

Sounds great, but visit a store and compare the price of batteries from various companies – each one is within a penny of the other.

Listen to the CEO of a major airline who explains: “we no longer compete on price because that’s bad for profits for the entire industry.”

Or, be amazed when the generic drug you are prescribed is made by the same manufacturer as the brand name version and the price of both is nearly identical.

Ah…the “free” market. Some politicians salute this as the cure for rising middle class healthcare costs. Is medical services shopping fun as you put your heart attack on pause to consult with various institutions and learn they have no set price, just schedules of charges that all fall within a close range?

Most of the problems we face in the marketplace come from lack of regulation to prevent monopolies, trickery and price-fixing.

Scott_Tissue_toilet_paper_ad_1915Which brings me to toilet tissue, once called toilet paper.

About 1970 the price of a roll of 500 sheets was less than a dime. Today, shoppers often pay a dollar a roll or more.

To make more money, all of the manufacturers decided in the 70s and 80s to make “adjustments” to the length of the sheets of paper. And they also worked together to reduce the width of rolls.

The original roll had sheets that measured 5″ by 5″, or 25 square inches. Gradually this has been cut to about 4″ by 4″, or 16 square inches. That means new sheets are 2/3 the size of the old ones.

But it was the number of sheets that became really confusing. Manufacturers went from 500 sheets to 150 double sheets and then introduced what they called a double roll that was 300 sheets.

By 2012 the 300 sheets were down in some cases to 268 sheets. You didn’t see the different sheet counts all along, because the trick played on you was increasing the diameter of the tube, which started out slightly larger than a nickel.

Eventually manufacturers expanded the center of tubes to about the size of a quarter, then a half dollar. The rolls flopped in holders. Today, you can drop a full size silver dollar down the middle of one of these tubes, with room to spare.

When you put all the numbers together, the modern toilet tissue roll contains one-third the paper in that 1970 roll, due to a bigger center tube, narrower width, shorter sheets and fewer sheets.


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