“The store shelves are bare of necessities / Fear took the helm driving shopping to insanity / So, a cushion of paper gives a sense of security.” Leslie Klein, a poet, has written about the toilet paper crisis of 2020.
When we look back on the pandemic of 2020, a memory that most people will have will be the toilet paper shortage. Studying why Americans turned the novel coronavirus into a shortage is a great insight into how Americans react and behave in a crisis.
David Cohen, a supermarket employee in North Carolina, observed something about the nature of humanity. Some shoppers hoarded an insane amount of toilet paper. Others, once they reached the checkout, decided they had too many rolls in their basket and put some back, often feeling guilty that they might leave others without any.
Toilet paper has begun to sell on the underground market. People are giving tips online on what stores have supplies and which are sold out. Stores where you would never imagine finding toilet paper have supplies, such as little hardware stores, gas stations, and other random places.
In Australia, a cafe started charging three rolls of toilet paper for a cup of coffee. In Hong Kong, robbers held up a supermarket for 600 rolls of toilet paper. A pet store in Germany set up a drive-through toilet paper market.
Ronald Blumber, who wrote a book about toilet paper in 2013, states “people have deep emotional connections to what goes into and comes out of our bodies. It sounds highfalutin, but it’s part of your being.”
Finding toilet paper has become an obsession. Your local go-to store does not have it, because they can not get enough from their suppliers. The manufacturers are making the same amount they typically do, but the demand at this time is much higher.Related: 12 Tips You Never Knew You Needed for Using the Toilet
The economics and logistics of the toilet paper problem are controversial, and there are many theories to explain why your favorite toilet paper seller keeps assuring the shopper that more toilet paper is on the way. There are over half a million hits on Google regarding the toilet paper shortage.
Many experts are currently working on theories and questions as to why this is happening now. There have been many experts studying the “toilet paper problem” for decades. This study looked at why some people in public restrooms take from the fuller roll, while others called “little choosers” take the toilet paper from the smaller roll.
Psychologists are curious why toilet paper, not essential to sustaining life, is as essential as milk and eggs in our panic buying behavior. Social historians are looking at why people view toilet paper as vital when it wasn’t even a household commodity until the early 1940s.
Americans spent 102% more on toilet paper then they did at the same time last year, according to IRI, which tracks retail sales based on barcodes. Only hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes have seen such high boosts of sales.
At the end of March, toilet paper sales plummeted because the supply was not available. There was only one other category of products in grocery stores that saw sales go down compared to last year: energy drinks. (Possibly because most people are either not working or working from home and maybe do not need as much energy.)
The leading theories on why people hoarded toilet paper:
1. We are buying too much because we panicked that when we need it, there will not be enough.
2. We are using more toilet paper because most people are at home when they would usually use the restroom someplace else.
3. Both theories are right.
Doug Baker, Vice President at the Food Industry Association, states it is a three-part problem.
Part One: HOARDING
“We have actual situations across the country where people are buying an entire case,” Baker said. “Demand became unprecedented and still is.”
Customers typically wipe out toilet paper aisles before a hurricane or snowstorm, and the system can rebound quickly. But this is different since the COVID-19 pandemic has lasted longer and it is a nationwide crisis, not just local. There is also not an end in sight for the pandemic.
Part Two: DISPLACEMENT
The same number of people need toilet paper as before, but the industry is not set up to move from wholesale to home. Toilet paper for schools, offices, and public restrooms are made and distributed by different companies than the soft, smaller packaged rolls for the home.
Part Three: ADAPTING
The industry is changing. Manufacturers have added factory hours, and companies that make the industrial toilet paper have struck deals to get their products into grocery stores.
The problem is that it’s not as easy as putting the commercial trucks and shipping them out. Industrial toilet paper does not have barcodes, so they are adapting by putting stickers (like on fruit) onto the rolls.
There is not a shortage, but it does take time for the supply chain to catch up to the spike in demand. It’s not likely the shortage will go away soon, but eventually, it will get there.Related: Why You Should Consider Closing the Toilet Lid When You Flush