Oct. 12, 2021 -- How did toilet paper become the unofficial symbol of anxiety during the pandemic? Empty store shelves are a stark reminder of how COVID-19 has taken a toll on people.
At the beginning of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders drove people to buy large amounts of household goods, especially toilet paper. Demand grew to unforeseen heights in March 2020, with $1.45 billion in toilet paper sales in the 4-week period ending March 29, up 112% from the year before, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research firm.
As the Delta variant drove a COVID-19 resurgence this summer, market research suggests that almost 1 in 2 Americans started stockpiling toilet paper again over fears that supply would run out. The higher demand causes ripples through the retail chain, and a growing number of stores are again facing challenges in stocking toilet paper.
Yet there is plenty for everyone if people don't stockpile too much, according to paper industry market analyst Ronalds Gonzalez, PhD, an associate professor of conversion economics and sustainability at North Carolina State University.
"As long as people buy what they actually need and don't get into a panic, there won't be any issue with the supply of hygienic tissue," he says, adding that “too much” would equate to stockpiling 6 to 8 months’ worth of toilet paper, as some people did early in the pandemic.
But retailers are worried that history will repeat itself. In late September 2021, warehouse retail giant Costco told Wall Street analysts that it decided to limit customer purchases of essential items like toilet paper and water. Another retailer, Sam's Club, began limiting customer purchases of supplies like toilet paper at the end of July.
"We are wired to run with the herd," says Bradley Klontz, PsyD, an associate professor of practice at Creighton University Heider College of Business, who specializes in financial psychology.
“Quite literally, the last person to get to Costco doesn't get the toilet paper, so when the herd is running in a certain direction, we feel a biological imperative to not be that last person. That fear of scarcity actually creates the experience of scarcity,” he explains.
The Science Behind the Stockpile
People are collectively alerted by photos shared on social media showing store shelves stripped of toilet paper. Those images triggered consumers to rush out and buy bathroom tissue, even if they didn't need it -- and that herd behavior created toilet paper shortages.
Now, a year and half into the pandemic, people are hypervigilant to danger. Any hint of a possible toilet paper shortage can provoke anxiety and the desire to stockpile.
"It's an adaptive response to having just gone through the experience" of seeing empty store shelves, says Klontz. He advises people to take a deep breath before buying extra toilet paper and then assess whether it is truly needed.
Deep in our brains is the limbic system, a group of structures that rules over emotions, motivation, reward, learning, memory, and the fight-or-flight response to stress and danger. When a person senses danger, the brain activates hormones to raise blood pressure and heart rate, increase blood flow, and boost the breath rate, making the body ready to fight or flee under threat.
Once everything settles, the body activates chemicals like dopamine that bring on positive feelings of well-being, rewarding that flight-or-fight response. In this way, the brain powerfully reinforces a key survival instinct.
This sequence of experiences and the brain chemistry behind them may explain why people panic-buy toilet paper.
“With toilet paper, my limbic system starts thinking about a perceived threat to safety,” says Julie Pike, PhD, a psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in anxiety, hoarding, and posttraumatic stress disorder.
She notes that in stockpiling toilet paper, "we avoid a perceived threat and then we are chemically rewarded" with dopamine. A storage closet full of toilet paper after a perceived threat of scarcity -- no matter how unfounded -- brings on that satisfied feeling.
When the Market Shifted
Paper producers make hygiene paper for two markets: the commercial (think: those big rolls of thin paper used in offices, schools, and restaurants) and the consumer (the soft paper you likely use at home). In the spring of 2020, the commercial market plummeted, and the consumer market skyrocketed.
Generally, the consumer toilet paper market is steady. The average American uses about 57 toilet sheets a day and about 50 pounds annually. Grocery stores and other retailers keep just enough toilet paper on hand to meet this steady demand, meaning panic buying at the start of the pandemic quickly depleted stocks. Paper makers had to change production to meet higher consumer demand and fewer commercial buyers.
By the end of the summer of 2020, toilet paper makers had adjusted for the market shift and caught up with demand, as consumers worked through their stockpiles of paper. But retail inventories remain lean because toilet paper doesn’t carry huge profit margins. For this reason, even healthy stocks remain sensitive to sudden shifts in consumer demand, Gonzalez says.
"If people buy more than they should, then they are just buying from other people,” creating an unnecessary scarcity of toilet paper, he says.
The Supply Chain
It is true that the supply chain is under unprecedented strain, leading to higher prices for many goods, says Katie Denis, vice president of research and industry narrative at the Consumer Brands Association, which represents toilet paper makers Georgia-Pacific and Procter & Gamble. Consumers should expect toilet paper to be available, but there may be fewer options for product sizes, she says.
Still, Gonzalez says consumers should not worry too much about the global supply chain affecting the domestic toilet paper supply. The raw material for toilet paper production is available domestically, and more than 97% of the supply on U.S. retailer shelves is made in the United States, he says.
In modern society, toilet paper is a primary link to civilization, health, and hygiene. While there is no easy substitute, alternatives do exist A bidet, for example, is a device that can spray water on the genital area. Other options are reusable cloths, sponges, baby wipes, napkins, towels, and washcloths.
Human Health and Hygiene
“Compared to many other items, toilet paper can’t really be replaced,” says Frank H. Farley, PhD, a professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University, who studies human motivation. "It is a unique consumer item that is perceived to be extremely necessary. In that way, it plays into that survivor mentality, that having it is necessary for survival."
Being without it can truly seem like an existential threat.
New York City emergency planner Ira Tannenbaum advises families to assess their usage of essential household supplies like toilet paper (you can do so through this toilet paper calculator) and keep at least a 1-week supply on hand in case of emergency. New York City has posted recommendations to families for emergency planning, including the guidance to "avoid panic buying."
Pike says she would stockpile a bit more, something that could be done gradually, before there’s a panic. She says that if people are tempted to buy more out of anxiety, they should remind themselves that shortages arise because of panicky purchasing.
"Leave some for other families -- other people have children and partners and siblings just like us," she says.