Tissue issue: Explaining the curious connection between the coronavirus pandemic and toilet paper shortages.

How did the pandemic drive consumers to purchase reams and reams of toilet paper?

Just after coronavirus cases started appearing in Europe and North America, two things began to happen.  One was restrictions on people’s movements — soon leading to lockdowns nearly everywhere.

The other was a run on toilet paper that seemed to go on for months and months.

While other necessities suffered temporary product shortages as well, toilet paper in particular seemed to be affected the most. And as its disappearance from the store shelves became widely reported, the shortage began to take on near mythic proportions.

Photos of barren shelves were plastered all over the news and shared on social media – even giving the rise to a flourishing resale market in which the price of TP skyrocketed.  

It’s little wonder that at the same time, thefts of toilet paper began to be reported across the globe.

Surveys conducted among consumers in North America and Europe found more than a few people admitting that they had begun hoarding toilet paper – more than 17% of North Americans and nearly 14% of Europeans acknowledging so.

Just what is the correlation between a health crisis like COVID-19 and the sudden unavailability of a product like TP, of all things?

It’s the kind of question that no doubt intrigues researchers in the field of consumer behavior.  In January, a team of five analysts in Spain published a review of the available research on the topic.  Their reporting suggests that several factors were likely at work – some more significant than others.  Here is a synopsis of what they reported:

Potential Factor #1:  Diarrhea

As coronavirus cases began to rise, more people were experiencing increased gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea — either induced by stress or by the COVID-19 itself.  However, medical studies suggest that only about 13% of people who contract COVID have significant diarrhea as one of the symptoms or side effects.  That 13% is actually a relatively low proportion of COVID patients, and therefore can’t explain much of the global surge in toilet paper purchases.  Verdict:  Unlikely factor.

Potential Factor #2:  Actual Product Shortages

A more likely explanation for the run on toilet paper is that the product was merely one of numerous necessities that consumers went out to purchase in abundance as lockdowns began to take effect around the world.  But whereas items like canned foods were able to be more readily restocked, toilet paper wasn’t.  In this scenario, supply chains weren’t prepared for the sudden the shift in demand from commercial-quality to residential-quality toilet paper, paper towels and such.  As a result, it took longer for production to retool and meet the increased demand.  Verdict:  Somewhat more likely factor.

Potential Factor #3:  Fear — Magnified by the Media

As the news media began to report on empty shelves, toilet paper buying patterns that had initially been in line with those seen for other sought-after goods now reached frenzied proportions.  The “FOMO factor” (fear of missing out) increased bulk buying and hoarding behaviors even more.

Adding to the fevered environment was an additional factor, as explained by Dr. Brian Cook, who is a member of the Disaster Risk Reduction initiative at Australia’s University of Melbourne:

“Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”

The TP buying craze has been seen before.  Toilet paper shortages were recorded during the political crisis in Venezuela in 2013 … following the terror attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City 2001 … and even as far back as the 1973 OPEC oil crisis.

I guess the bottom line is this: When the sh*t hits the fan, it’s the toilet paper that wipes out …

One thought on “Tissue issue: Explaining the curious connection between the coronavirus pandemic and toilet paper shortages.

  1. I expect something primal is at work.

    When an unavoidable crisis threatens, we unthinkingly stockpile toilet paper in hope of maintaining the freedom to go — so to speak — if not the freedom to escape.

    Children sent away to summer camp routinely express fear they will not be allowed to go to the bathroom in the new environment. Being clean in this most basic of all ways seems to be something we cling to under stress.

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