COVID-19

The economics behind why toilet paper is sold out

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Mar 19, 2020
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Raising prices might curb panic-buying, but it’s also price gouging. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

The economics behind why toilet paper is sold out

David Brancaccio and Rose Conlon Mar 19, 2020
Raising prices might curb panic-buying, but it’s also price gouging. Daniel Slim/AFP via Getty Images
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This is part of our “Econ Extra Credit” project, where we read an introductory economics textbook provided by the nonprofit Core Econ together with our listeners.


Price discrimination is baked into a lot of mundane daily transactions.

“If we see a sale; if we see coupons; if the price is different for seniors or students at a movie theater than it is for adults — all of that counts as price discrimination,” said Homa Zarghamee, an economics professor at Barnard College who advises Core Econ, the publisher of the open-source economics textbook Marketplace’s David Brancaccio is reading with listeners.

We’re perhaps most accustomed to it when we’re buying airfare, knowing that purchasing a ticket months in advance will likely be cheaper than buying it the night before.

Price discrimination looks a little different in this era of novel coronavirus, however. On eBay, right now, people are still selling packs of toilet paper at inflated prices given the bare shelves in some stores. Many sellers are presumably profit-seeking scalpers, who grabbed the TP early.

When stores can’t use dynamic pricing when demand surges ⁠— because in an emergency, we call that “price gouging” ⁠— one consequence is the scalping, a so-called “secondary market.” Some see “efficiency” in letting stores or scalpers jack up prices to what ever people are willing to pay.

But, Zarghamee says, you have to account for income inequality.

“Of course, that’s revealing something that’s already true in markets, which is that your willingness to pay determines whether you’re going to get the good to begin with,” she said. “But what gets lost in a lot of this talk is that the term ‘willingness to pay’ makes it in some sense sound like we’re all starting with the same amount of money. And so our willingness to pay is a good indication of how much we actually want something. And that gets very distorted when you have inequality because, really, what willingness to pay is, is your willingness and ability to pay. And so somebody with much higher income will always be willing to pay more because they’re able to pay more.”

Click the audio player above to hear the full interview.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

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.

What’s going to happen to retailers, especially with the holiday shopping season approaching?

A report out recently from the accounting consultancy BDO USA said 29 big retailers filed for bankruptcy protection through August. And if bankruptcies continue at that pace, the number could rival the bankruptcies of 2010, after the Great Recession. For retailers, the last three months of this year will be even more critical than usual for their survival as they look for some hope around the holidays.

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