COVID-19

Why are people stockpiling toilet paper?

Marielle Segarra Mar 11, 2020
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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
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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

New COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. are on the rise. How are Americans reacting?

Johns Hopkins University reports the seven-day average of new cases hit 68,767 on Sunday  — a record — eclipsing the previous record hit in late July during the second, summer wave of infection. A funny thing is happening with consumers though: Even as COVID-19 cases rise, Americans don’t appear to be shying away from stepping indoors to shop or eat or exercise. Morning Consult asked consumers how comfortable they feel going out to eat, to the shopping mall or on a vacation. And their willingness has been rising. Surveys find consumers’ attitudes vary by age and income, and by political affiliation, said Chris Jackson, who heads up polling at Ipsos.

How many people are flying? Has traveled picked up?

Flying is starting to recover to levels the airline industry hasn’t seen in months. The Transportation Security Administration announced on Oct. 19 that it’s screened more than 1 million passengers on a single day — its highest number since March 17. The TSA also screened more than 6 million passengers last week, its highest weekly volume since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While travel is improving, the TSA announcement comes amid warnings that the U.S. is in the third wave of the coronavirus. There are now more than 8 million cases in the country, with more than 219,000 deaths.

How are Americans feeling about their finances?

Nearly half of all Americans would have trouble paying for an unexpected $250 bill and a third of Americans have less income than before the pandemic, according to the latest results of our Marketplace-Edison Poll. Also, 6 in 10 Americans think that race has at least some impact on an individual’s long-term financial situation, but Black respondents are much more likely to think that race has a big impact on a person’s long-term financial situation than white or Hispanic/Latinx respondents.

Find the rest of the poll results here, which cover how Americans have been faring financially about six months into the pandemic, race and equity within the workplace and some of the key issues Trump and Biden supporters are concerned about.

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