October 12, 2021 – How has toilet paper become an unofficial symbol of anxiety during the pandemic? Empty store shelves are a stark reminder of how COVID-19 is affecting people.
At the start of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders prompted people to purchase large quantities of household goods, especially toilet paper. Demand grew to unexpected heights in March 2020, with toilet paper sales totaling $1.45 billion in the four-week period ending March 29, up 112% from a year earlier, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI.
As the delta variant led to the return of COVID-19 this summer, market research indicates that nearly 1 in 2 Americans have started stockpiling toilet paper again due to fears of running out. Rising demand is causing ripples across the retail chain, and an increasing number of stores are once again facing challenges stocking toilet paper.
However, there is plenty for everyone if people don’t stack too much, according to paper industry market analyst Ronald Gonzalez, PhD, associate professor of transformation economics and sustainability at North Carolina State University.
“As long as people buy what they really need and don’t panic, there will be no problem with providing healthy tissues,” he says, adding that “a lot” would equate to stocking 6 to 8 toilet paper for months, as some people did early on in the pandemic. .
But retailers worry that history will repeat itself. In late September 2021, warehouse retail giant Costco told Wall Street analysts it had decided to restrict customer purchases of essential items like toilet paper and water. Another retailer, Sam’s Club, began limiting customer purchases of supplies such as toilet paper at the end of July.
“We are connected to running with the herd,” says Bradley Klontz, PsyD, assistant professor at Creighton University’s Hyder School of Business, who specializes in financial psychology.
“Literally, the last person to arrive at Costco didn’t get toilet paper, so when the herd runs in a certain direction, we feel a biological imperative that we not be that last person. This fear of scarcity actually creates the experience of scarcity,” he explains.
The science behind stocks
People are collectively alerted by images shared on social media that show store shelves stripped of toilet paper. These images have prompted consumers to rush out and buy toilet paper, even if they don’t need it — and herd behavior has caused toilet paper shortages.
Now, a year and a half into the pandemic, people are very vigilant about the danger. Any hint of a possible toilet paper shortage can spark anxiety and a desire to stock up.
“It’s an adaptive response to just having the experience of ‘seeing empty store shelves,'” says Klontz. People are advised to take a deep breath before purchasing extra toilet paper and then assess whether it is really needed.
Deep in our brains is the limbic system, a group of structures that govern emotions, motivation, reward, learning, memory, and the fight-or-flight response to stress and danger. When a person senses danger, the brain activates hormones to raise blood pressure and heart rate, increase blood flow, and increase respiratory rate, making the body ready to fight or flee under threat.
Once everything stabilizes, the body activates chemicals like dopamine that bring positive feelings of well-being, rewarding the flight-or-fight response. In this way, the brain strongly reinforces the main survival instinct.
This sequence of experiments and the brain chemistry behind them may explain why people panic buying toilet paper.
“Using toilet paper, my limbic system starts to think of a potential safety threat,” says Julie Pike, PhD, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who specializes in anxiety, hoarding, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In stockpiling toilet paper, she notes, “we avoid a physical threat and are then chemically rewarded” with dopamine. A storage cabinet full of toilet paper after a potential threat of scarcity – regardless of the lack of foundation – brings that feeling of satisfaction.
When the market turns
Paper producers make hygienic paper for two markets: commercial (think: those big rolls of thin paper used in offices, schools, and restaurants) and consumer (the fine paper you’re likely to use at home). In the spring of 2020, the commercial market collapsed, and the consumer market rose dramatically.
In general, the consumer toilet paper market is stable. The average American uses about 57 toilet paper per day and about 50 pounds annually. Grocery stores and other retailers keep enough toilet paper on hand to meet this steady demand, meaning panic buying at the start of the pandemic quickly depleted stocks. Paper makers had to change production to meet high consumer demand and fewer commercial buyers.
By the end of the summer of 2020, toilet paper makers had adapted to the market shift and kept pace with demand, as consumers worked through their paper stocks. But retail stocks are still meager because toilet paper doesn’t carry huge profit margins. For this reason, healthy stocks remain sensitive to sudden shifts in consumer demand, Gonzalez says.
“If people buy more than they should, they only buy other people,” he says, leading to an unnecessary scarcity of toilet paper.
It’s true that the supply chain is under unprecedented pressure, driving up prices for many goods, says Katie Dennis, vice president of research and industries for the Consumer Brands Association, which represents Georgia-Pacific toilet paper makers and Procter & Gamble. Consumers should expect toilet paper to be available, but there may be fewer choices for product sizes, she says.
However, Gonzalez says consumers should not worry too much about the global supply chain affecting the domestic toilet paper supply. Raw materials for toilet paper production are available locally, and more than 97% of what’s on U.S. retail store shelves is made in the United States, he says.
In modern society, toilet paper is an essential link of civilization, health and hygiene. While there is no easy alternative, there are alternatives. A bidet, for example, is a device that can spray water on the genital area. Other options are reusable cloths, sponges, baby wipes, wipes, washcloths, and washcloths.
Human health and hygiene
“Compared to many other items, toilet paper really can’t be replaced,” says Frank H. Farley, PhD, professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University, who studies human motivation. “It’s a unique consumer item that is seen as absolutely essential. In this way, it plays into the mindset of the survivors, and that having it is essential to survival.”
Existence without it can seem like a truly existential threat.
New York City emergency planner Ira Tannenbaum advises families to assess their use of basic household items like toilet paper (you can do so with this toilet paper calculator) and keep at least a week’s supply on hand in case of an emergency. New York City has published recommendations for families to plan for emergencies, including “Avoid panic buying” guidelines.
Pike says she’ll stock up on a bit more, which is something that can be done gradually, before there is a panic. She says that if people tend to buy more out of anxiety, they should remind themselves that the shortage arises because of panic buying.
“Leave some for other families — for other people kids, partners, and siblings just like us,” she says.