On Toilet Paper

2020-03-06_21-03

I’ve seen a few people on FB asking “Why on earth are people hoarding toilet paper?” or else “Why are people panic-buying toilet paper?”.  My intention here is not to put these people down, but to try to unpick what I think is going on here.

In Facebook bubble world, the hot-takes in response to these questions are mostly “people are selfish and only think of themselves” or “people are stupid and only do what they’re told by the media”.  In other words “other people” (it’s always someone else of course, nobody’s owning up to wheeling out 100 toilet rolls themself) are the problem and they’re simply conforming to the types that we already hold dear.

The other possible reason I can see is “because everyone else is”.  This is the herd mentality and it’s a little different from “because the media told them to”.  It’s hard for any of us (assuming we’ve money in our pocket) to resist taking a packet of toilet rolls whether we need it or not if we happen to see that the shelves are emptying.  Arguably talking about it on Facebook in these terms is driving more unneeded purchases because we’ve all seen that everyone else is “panic buying” and we need to get in there ourselves.

We don’t know, by the way that anyone is either “panic buying” or “hoarding” – these are phrases that we use freely though to explain why things aren’t on the shelves.  I think the likely scenario is much calmer.  People are doing their normal shopping, heading for the bathroom supplies aisle and picking up an extra hand soap and a larger than normal pack of toilet paper, no panic or hoarding involved, just a shift in the pattern of demand.

I think all of these explanations are part of the picture, but not the whole thing.  Some people are stupid, some people do behave extremely selfishly, unconscious purchasing happens all the time to all sorts of people – some people, for example, have all sorts of worries and feelings and habitually salve those feelings by buying stuff they don’t want and don’t need.  We all know (and, at times, can be) those people.

Isn’t it interesting though that we look first to blame individuals and try to discern why they are behaving badly?

Another way of responding to the empty toilet paper shelves is to ask “Is toilet paper just that supermarket product which is the most sensitive to fluctuations in demand?  Is there something in the system of toilet paper supply that means that if people buy just a little more than usual, shops run out of it more quickly than anything else?”

All of which reminds me of a campaign a couple of years ago that involved buying up toilet paper to highlight the fragility of the supply chain with the idea that this would show us all how dangerous a no-deal Brexit would be.  (Found it: Bog Roll Buy Up)

So is toilet paper the top of the list?  Is there a list?  A league table of products in order of their sensitivity to demand?  And if there is such a list what’s next?  Initial ranting on Facebook, at least in the Guildford area, would suggest it might be pasta (though I’m suspicious of the screengrab illustrating this post which reports that Tesco has run out of pasta completely.

It’s doubtless more complex than this – ie there will be products that are more sensitive to different kinds of crisis but I’d like to know if someone routinely does this kind of research so that we don’t have to construct it experientially as the latest wave of apocalyptic disaster unfolds.  If we have a good list we can measure the level of disaster by which shelves are empty. “Oh you think this is bad, I remember one time, you couldn’t even get tinned tomatoes for love nor money!”

In the meantime, please stay safe, don’t get into fights over tissue paper and please wash your hands, especially if you’ve run short of toilet paper and are having to “substitute”.