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Panicking toilet paper is a bad habit we can break

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October 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 its toll on people.

At the start of the pandemic, home orders prompted people to purchase large amounts of household items, especially toilet paper. Demand hit unexpected highs in March 2020, with $ 1.45 billion in toilet paper sales in the 4-week period ending March 29, up 112% from the previous year, according to IRI, a Chicago-based market research company.

While the Delta variant led to a resurgence of COVID-19 this summer, market research suggests that nearly one in two Americans have resumed stocking toilet paper for fear of out of stock. The higher demand is causing ripples in the retail chain, and an increasing number of stores are again facing challenges in stocking toilet paper.

Still, there is something for everyone if people don’t stock up too much, according to Ronalds Gonzalez, paper industry market analyst, PhD, associate professor of conversion economics and sustainability at the University of ‘State of North Carolina.

“As long as people buy what they really need and don’t panic, there will be no problem with the supply of toilet paper,” he says, adding that “too much” would be equivalent to storing 6-8 months. of toilet paper, as some people did at the start of the pandemic.

But retailers fear history will repeat itself. In late September 2021, warehouse retail giant Costco told analysts on Wall Street that it had 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’re programmed to run with the herd,” says Bradley Klontz, PsyD, associate professor of practice at Creighton University’s Heider College of Business, specializing in financial psychology.

“Literally the last person to go to Costco doesn’t get toilet paper, so when the herd is running in a certain direction, we feel a biological imperative not to be that last person. This fear of scarcity actually creates the experience of scarcity, ”he explains.

The science behind the reserve

People are collectively alerted by photos shared on social media showing store shelves stripped of toilet paper. These images prompted consumers to rush out and buy toilet paper, even if they didn’t need it – and this herd behavior created toilet paper shortages.

Now, a year and a half after the start of the pandemic, people are hyper-vigilant in the face of danger. Any hint of a possible toilet paper shortage can cause anxiety and the urge to stock up.

“It’s an adaptive response to having had the experience” of seeing store shelves empty, Klontz explains. He advises people to breathe deeply before purchasing additional toilet paper, and then assess whether it is really needed.

Deep inside our brain is the limbic system, a group of structures that govern 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 increase blood pressure and heart rate, increase blood flow, and increase respiratory rate, making the body ready to fight or flee under threat.

Once this is all sorted out, the body activates chemicals like dopamine that cause positive feelings of well-being, rewarding this flight or fight response. In this way, the brain powerfully reinforces a key survival instinct.

This sequence of experiments and the brain chemistry behind them may explain why people panic buying toilet paper.

“With toilet paper, my limbic system begins to think of a perceived security threat,” says Julie Pike, PhD, psychologist in Chapel Hill, NC, who specializes in anxiety, hoarding and post stress disorder. -traumatic.

She notes that by stocking up on toilet paper, “we avoid a perceived threat and are then chemically rewarded” with dopamine. A storage cupboard full of toilet paper after a perceived threat of shortage – unfounded as it is – arouses that sense of satisfaction.

When the market has changed

Paper producers make toilet tissue for two markets: the commercial (think: those big rolls of fine paper used in offices, schools, and restaurants) and the consumer (the soft paper you probably use at home). In the spring of 2020, the commercial market collapsed and the consumer market skyrocketed.

Overall, the consumer toilet paper market is stable. The average American uses about 57 towels per day and about 50 pounds per year. Grocery stores and other retailers keep just enough toilet paper on hand to meet this constant demand, meaning panic buying at the start of the pandemic quickly ran out of stock. Paper manufacturers have had to shift production to meet increased consumer demand and fewer commercial buyers.

By the end of summer 2020, toilet paper manufacturers had adjusted to changing market conditions and caught up with demand, as consumers worked on their paper stocks. But retail inventories remain meager as toilet paper does not generate huge profit margins. Because of this, even healthy stocks remain susceptible to sudden changes in consumer demand, Gonzalez explains.

“If people buy more than they should, then they are just buying from other people,” creating an unnecessary shortage of toilet paper, he says.

Supply chain

It is true that the supply chain is under unprecedented pressure, resulting in higher prices for many products, says Katie Denis, vice president of research and industrial storytelling at the Consumer Brands Association, which represents consumers. Georgia-Pacific and Procter & Gamble bathroom tissue makers. Consumers should expect toilet paper to be available, but there may be fewer options for product sizes, she says.

Still, Gonzalez says consumers shouldn’t be overly concerned about the global supply chain affecting the domestic supply of toilet paper. The raw material for the production of toilet paper is available domestically, and more than 97% of the supply on U.S. retail shelves is made in the United States, he says.

In modern society, toilet paper is a primary link with civilization, health and hygiene. While there is no easy substitute, there are alternatives. A bidet, for example, is a device that can spray water on the genital area. Other options are reusable cloths, sponges, baby wipes, towels, napkins and washcloths.

Human health and hygiene

“Compared to many other items, toilet paper can’t really be replaced,” says Frank H. Farley, PhD, professor of psychological studies in education at Temple University, who studies human motivation. “It’s a unique consumer item that is seen as extremely necessary. In that way, it plays into that survivor mentality, that having having is necessary for survival.”

Being without her can really seem like an existential threat.

New York City Emergency Planner Ira Tannenbaum advises families to assess their use of essential household supplies like toilet paper (you can do that with this toilet paper calculator) and keep at least one one week reserve at hand in case of emergency. New York City has issued recommendations for families for emergency planning, including advice on “avoiding panic shopping.”

Pike said she would stockpile some more, which could be done gradually, before there was a panic. She says if people are tempted to buy more out of anxiety, they should remember that shortages arise because of panicked shopping.

“Leave it to other families – other people have children, partners and siblings just like us,” she says.

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