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Toilet Paper Is the 'Icon' of Panic Buying

Shoppers are looking for a sense of control, say psychologists
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 12, 2020 9:00 AM CDT

(Newser) – Anyone who's been in a supermarket of late has likely seen the empty shelves for hand sanitizers and ... toilet paper? The latter is seen as a prime example of panic buying amid the coronavirus outbreak, and not just in the US. Coverage:

  • The psychology: Toilet paper is sort of an "icon" for panic buying in times of trouble, Dimitrios Tsivrikos of University College London tells CNBC. "In times of uncertainty, people enter a panic zone that makes them irrational and completely neurotic." In this case, we have the combo of a scary new virus and buyers looking to give themselves a sense of control. In that context, shoppers are looking "for value and high volumes," he says, and those bulk packages of TP do the trick.
  • No shortage: The weird thing is that the US imports less than 10% of its toilet paper, notes economist Jay Zagorsky in the Conversation. If we got most of our supply from overseas, that would be a problem, but about 150 US companies make the stuff. Thus, there is no shortage of toilet paper in America, just temporarily bare shelves as people hoard supplies for the psychological reasons cited above.

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  • Copycats: Also playing a role here are the images people are posting of empty shelves—and watching what's in other shoppers' carts. "People, being social creatures, we look to each other for cues for what is safe and what is dangerous," clinical psychologist Steven Taylor tells CNN. "And when you see someone in the store panic buying, that can cause a fear contagion effect."
  • Craziness: A Smoking Gun item notes the arrest of a man in Clearwater, Florida, for allegedly stealing toilet paper from a neighbor's vehicle. The BBC recounts a bigger theft overseas—armed robbers making off with hundreds of rolls in Hong Kong. And in Australia, 9News posted video of this fight among shoppers after one woman loaded up her cart with bulk packages of rolls and wouldn't share.
  • Where to buy: Shelves are so bare in the US that USA Today is running a list of where toilet paper is still available. That list includes Amazon, Home Depot, and Lowe's. The newspaper also has a list of where to get other hard-to-find items, including hand sanitizer.
  • Advice: The Wall Street Journal has advice on how not to get gouged online when shopping for toilet paper and other items. But before the specifics on that, the piece includes comments from Chuck Bell of Consumer Reports, who thinks people should calm down because supermarket shelves will be filling up again. If they can wait to buy, they should. "This situation will go on for many months," he says. "If there are shortages, one can reasonably expect that manufacturers will respond."
  • Novel solution: An Australian tabloid took note of the toilet paper freakout in unusual fashion: The NT News printed eight blank pages—for people to use as toilet paper in a pinch.
(Read more coronavirus stories.)

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