Coronavirus: Why Are People Buying So Much Toilet Paper?

March 13, 2020
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More than half of the world’s countries are reporting infections of COVID-19, and the current outbreak of the illness has many people so worried that they are behaving in unusual ways.

If you’ve been to a supermarket, pharmacy, or big box store lately, you may have noticed a conspicuous lack of products like hand sanitizer, Lysol spray, and Clorox wipes on the shelves as consumers try to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Stores are also reporting another product that they can’t resupply fast enough to meet demand — toilet paper. Shoppers in a Woolworth’s in Australia even got into a physical altercation over a cartful of rolls last week.

If you’re confused as to why people are stocking up on toilet paper to the point that certain retailers are limiting the number of packs that customers can buy in one trip, you’re not alone, but according to experts there’s a reason for the madness.

What does a psychologist say about why people are buying so much toilet paper?

Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist who wrote “The Psychology of Pandemics,” told CNN “when people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn’t seem proportionate to the threat.”

As the reported number of cases globally increases daily and countries like Italy institute mass quarantines, people worry that they could soon find themselves in the same situation and buy more supplies than necessary out of fear that they won’t have enough on hand.

Upon seeing people stocking up on things like toilet paper, a scarcity mentality kicks in for others, eventually snowballing into a real scarcity. In buying more toilet paper than usual because of a perceived run on it, consumers have created an actual run on a product that, while necessary, is not directly related to the coronavirus and will not decrease their likelihood of getting sick.

“When you see someone in the store, panic buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect,” said Taylor, explaining that as social creatures, people look to others for cues on how to act in a moment of danger.

“We’re getting deliveries daily, but it’s still not enough given the increased levels of demands on certain key items,” said Costco CFO Richard A. Galanti last week.

Big brands like Walmart, Amazon and Target are reporting that they are nearly out of toilet paper for online buyers, and with record-low levels of stock, have not clarified when more will become available to consumers.

Shoppers can still find toilet paper in physical stores, but with dwindling supplies and long lines at many outlets, if you're running low it wouldn't hurt to call ahead.

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