What have you always wondered about the economy? Tell Us
COVID-19

Why are people stockpiling toilet paper?

Marielle Segarra Mar 11, 2020
HTML EMBED:
COPY
Is it fear of a coronavirus quarantine or just scarcity that's driving these Costco customers in Burbank, California, to stock up on toilet paper, paper towels and water on March 6? Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Why are people stockpiling toilet paper?

Marielle Segarra Mar 11, 2020
Is it fear of a coronavirus quarantine or just scarcity that's driving these Costco customers in Burbank, California, to stock up on toilet paper, paper towels and water on March 6? Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Every few months, Danielle DeSantis and her husband Robert go to a local Costco near Denver to stock up on things like meat, peanut butter and toilet paper. But when they went the other day? 

“There was no toilet paper,” she said. “There was no paper towels. And a woman came up and asked, ‘What about napkins? Are there napkins?’ and the Costco employee just laughed at her.”

A friend told her that Home Depot, which apparently sells toilet paper, was still in stock. They bought a 12-pack of Charmin. 

“And still, I was like, ‘But maybe I need more.’ And my husband, thank God, is the more pragmatic of the two of us and was like, ‘Danielle, 12 rolls will get you through 14 days of quarantine and many more. Stop it.'” 

DeSantis walked into the Costco a calm, collected consumer. And she walked out ready to stockpile toilet paper in her basement. 

There is a rational reason that people are buying staple items like toilet paper at a time like this. They worry that soon they might not be able to get to the store or the store might be closed. But you probably don’t need a year’s supply.

And the impulse to overbuy, which DeSantis had when she looked at those empty shelves, has a lot to do with the economic concept of scarcity.

“Scarcity is a really powerful driver of consumption,” said Adam Alter, who teaches marketing and psychology at the New York University Stern School of Business.

Alter said when you go to the store and see that there’s no toilet paper left, that signals that a product is in short supply.

“If I can find it somewhere, I should buy more of it than usual, because there’s a chance that other people will be buying in the same way and there’ll be less and less of it,” he said. “This is the kind of snowball effect.”

Which can lead to even more panic buying. 

Now, this is true of all kinds of products. So why toilet paper in particular? Alter says it’s considered a basic hygiene item in the United States, and people don’t really want to think about what it would be like to go without it. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

Read More

Collapse

Marketplace is on a mission.

We believe Main Street matters as much as Wall Street, economic news is made relevant and real through human stories, and a touch of humor helps enliven topics you might typically find…well, dull.

Through the signature style that only Marketplace can deliver, we’re on a mission to raise the economic intelligence of the country—but we don’t do it alone. We count on listeners and readers like you to keep this public service free and accessible to all. Will you become a partner in our mission today?

Your donation is critical to the future of public service journalism. Support our work today – for as little as $5 – and help us keep making people smarter.