You’ve got packages of toilet paper stacked in your bathroom closet. And some stashed inthe basement. But then you throw some more rolls into your grocery cart, while food shopping. And you’re tempted to add some to your online cart as you take advantage of those online deals. Just in case.
We bet it does. As the COVID-19 case numbers rise, so do the rolls of toilet paper people are buying. We’re already starting to see some empty shelves and sold out signs on online retailer websites. “Panic shopping” they call it.
Americans have a history of panic attacks over toilet paper, though. In 1973, Johnny Carson caused a mad dash for it after reading a newspaper clipping about a toilet paper shortage on the air and joking about it. He was talking about commercial toilet paper and not the kind we use at home.
So, why the toilet paper hoarding, and, to a lesser extent, hand sanitizer, paper towels and wipes? It gives us a sense of control when we feel hopeless over the spread of a deadly disease.
People buy toilet paper to ease their anxiety, but then toilet paper sells out, and people get frustrated and emotional and worried about toilet paper running out— a problem they helped create. So an action that initially comforts us ends up doing the exact opposite.
“This is not a rational behavior,” says Amna Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. “This is based on fear. It is emotional; it is a gut reaction.”
When this happens, we run out of TP in the short term, but the shortage doesn’t last long. People use an average of about 100 rolls of toilet paper a year, and there’s generally plenty for everyone in the long term, when the masses don’t stockpile it (we promise). Many companies have said they are better prepared for a sudden rush this time around, anyway, unlike when pandemic shutdowns began in March.
We have to remind ourselves there is plenty to go around, and we have to trust the country’s supply system.
Each of us has more control than we think if we follow the safety guidelines offered by health professionals, and focus on wearing masks, social distancing and keeping our gatherings small and outdoors — rather than on panic shopping paper products.