Coronavirus COVID-19: Why is everyone buying toilet paper?

Press/Media: Expert Comment


On my regular trip to the supermarket yesterday, there was not a single roll of toilet paper to be found.

It's something I'd never seen before, and while I like to think I'm a rational person, it sent me into a panic.

What made things worse was that when I went to another supermarket — which thankfully had supplies — the attendant had hoarded three large packets behind the counter.

She's not alone. Fears related to coronavirus have sent the country into a toilet paper-buying frenzy.

When I walked away from the supermarket with 36 rolls myself, I wondered: why have panic-buying Australians been so focused on toilet paper rather than other essentials, like food?

And why do we feel compelled to stock up when we see empty shelves?

Here's what two retail experts have to say.

Why there's no toilet paper on your supermarket shelves

Gary Mortimer, a retail expert and professor at QUT, says there are two main reasons supermarkets are running low on toilet paper.

Supermarkets tend to operate with what's called "just in time" inventory. In other words, they don't like to have big stockpiles of goods like toilet paper hanging around.

They usually get deliveries each day, with just enough stock to hold them over to the next delivery, Dr Mortimer says.

"If we think about toilet paper, it tends to be light and bulky, which means supermarkets can only hold 100-250 packets in one aisle," he says.

"If just half a dozen or a dozen people buy extra packets, suddenly the demand lifts very quickly and it's hard to keep that stock on the shelf."

As a result, you can quickly end up with empty shelves.

"I think toilet paper is a necessity, and it's hard to imagine living without it … that's a psychological driver," says Jana Bowden, an associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University.

"Another aspect is just the level of fear that has been perpetuated by stories in the media of what is happening in other countries.

"So we have situations in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan, and there's been news and reports on toilet paper shortages there.

"It's been a topic of media conversation, and consumers are watching what is happening around the world with the coronavirus, and we are taking psychological cues and signals from these other international markets."

Period4 Mar 2020

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