While it makes sense to me that masks and hand sanitizer would be in short supply because of the outbreak, I wondered why people would be hoarding toilet paper – a product that is widely produced and doesn’t help protect from a respiratory virus like COVID-19. Toilet paper is becoming so valuable there’s even been at least one armed robbery.
As an economist, I am fascinated by why people hoard products that are not having supply problems. Toilet paper hoarding in particular has a curious history and economy.
A masked customer grabs two packages of toilet paper at Longs Drugs in Moiliili. Customers were limited to two packages and a six-roll package sold for $13.99.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
This wouldn’t be the first panic over toilet paper.
At the time, Americans were already worrying about limited supplies of products like gasoline, electricity and onions. A government press release warning of a potential shortage in toilet paper led to a lot of press coverage but no outright panic buying until Johnny Carson, a famous late night television host, joked about it during his opening monologue. Instead of laughing, people took it seriously and began to hoard toilet paper.
Americans aren’t alone in panic buying to ensure they have plenty of squares to spare. Venezuelans hoarded the commodity in 2013 as a result of a drop in production, leading the government to seize a toilet paper factory in an effort to ensure more supply. It failed to do the trick.
So then why would people hoard a product that is abundant?
Australia has also suffered from panic buying of toilet paper despite plentiful domestic supply. A risk expert in the country explained it this way: “Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”
This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.
Hoarding also makes people feel secure. This is especially relevant when the world is faced with a novel disease over which all of us have little or no control. However, we can control things like having enough toilet paper in case we are quarantined.
It’s also possible we are biologically programmed to hoard. Birds, squirrels and other animals tend to hoard stuff.
How To Handle Shortages
There are a number of ways to handle shortages, including those caused by hoarding.
Modern economies run on trust and confidence. COVID-19 is breaking down that trust. People are losing confidence that they will be able to go outside and get what they need when they need it. This leads to hoarding items like toilet paper.
While the government advises preparing for a pandemic by storing a two-week supply of food and water, there’s no need to hoard stuff, particularly products that are unlikely to suffer from a shortage.
As for my local Costco, I stopped by a few days later, and the toilet paper aisle was fully stocked.
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