The psychology behind the panic buying of toilet paper during the Covid 19 outbreak

Press/Media: Expert Comment


One theory from consumer expert Dr Rohan Miller from the University of Sydney is that "We're not used to shortages and scarcity, we're used to being able to pick and choose what we want when we want. So the rush to get toilet paper is just this sheep mentality to maintain that status

As the novel coronavirus outbreak has swept all over the world, it has been accompanied by frenzied  of household essentials such as food and water, and, of all things, rolls of .

Several countries have reported cases of people stockpiling goods. In Asia, noodles and rice have been the items of choice. In Western countries, pasta and canned goods have been flying off the shelves.

But everywhere, it seems, people have whipped themselves into a frenzy buying toilet paper—as apparently they are now part of living essentials people cannot do without should they be forced to quarantine themselves in their homes because of Covid-19.

Consider the following news items:

In Hong Kong, three men wielding knives broke into a supermarket in Hong Kong and stole 600 rolls of toilet paper last month

—In Japan, people have been stealing toilet paper from public restrooms, despite the fact that the country has actually overstocked the item

—In Australia, Woolworths, the county’s biggest supermarket chain, announced it would be limiting the number of toilet paper rolls to four packs per person.

—And in Australia (again), one woman at a Woolworth’s store pulled a knife on another shopper over an argument over toilet rolls, to the point that six police rushed to the scene. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

What’s behind the rush for loo rolls?

Well, governments have been advising people to stock up on necessities since the  began to spread more widely. But why has toilet paper in particular been the item of choice? It’s not as though running out of the item is a matter of life and death, and surely there are substitutes for toilet paper if one runs out.

And unlike masks, which have also run out of stock due to panic buying (and panic-using), toilet paper does nothing to either protect someone from getting infected with the coronavirus (which masks may not do, either), nor does it prevent its spread.

So why are people going out and buying all the toilet paper they see?

Well, for one thing, perhaps the first nation that started the trend is responsible for spreading it to other countries.  Associate Professor Nitika Garg from the University of New South Wales told the BBC, “They think if this person is buying it, if my neighbour is buying there’s got to be a reason and I need to get in too.”

Therefore, on a grander scale, we may just be copying our neighbors. “If Hong Kong had a toilet paper shortage, then it may happen in Singapore (or Australia, or Germany, or Japan) too, and by god! I must be prepared,” may be replicated on a country-wide level.

An associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University, Jana Bowden said, “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.”

Professor Garg also says that the panic buying of toilet paper may be all about control. Two months into the outbreak and there are many unknowns about the virus, which means that some of the questions burning in people’s minds—(How long will it last? Is it safe to travel? What happens when my supplies run out?)—simply have no answers, leading to helplessness.

A simple thing such as making sure that we have enough toilet paper can address that feeling of helplessness.

Professor Garg said, “They want to be prepared because it’s the one thing they can do to get some sense of control.”

Perhaps toilet paper is also a symbol of the convenience of modern living we have gotten used to, and are unprepared to give up.

According to Dr Rohan Miller from the University of Sydney, a consumer expert, “We’re not used to shortages and scarcity, we’re used to being able to pick and choose what we want, when we want. So the rush to get toilet paper is just this sheep mentality to maintain that status.

I think people want to make sure they have some comforts in their lives if they’re going to be shacked up with their family for a long time. Toilet paper doesn’t really matter – it’s just so far down the survival list compared to other things like food or water – but it’s just something people cling to as a minimum standard.” —/TISG

Period5 Mar 2020

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