You’ve got packages of toilet paper stacked in your bathroom closet. And some stashed in the basement. But then you throw some more rolls into your grocery cart, while food shopping. And you’re tempted to add some to your online cart as you take advantage of those Black Friday deals. Just in case. Sound familiar?
We bet it does. As the COVID case numbers rise so do the rolls of toilet paper people are buying. We’re already starting to see some empty shelves and sold out signs on online retailer websites. “Panic shopping” they call it. It happens when there is a call for snow, even if it’s a meager 2 inches, and when a hurricane is scheduled to hit. The unpredictable destruction of a hurricane and likely interruption of services and regular commerce make the panic a little more understandable. That it happens during a pandemic makes less sense, given that toilet paper is not going to protect you from COVID-19 in any way whatsoever, and grocery stores are among the few things we can count on remaining open, whether you shop online or in person.
Americans have a history of panic attacks over toilet paper, though. In 1973, Johnny Carson caused a mad dash for it after reading a newspaper clipping about a toilet paper shortage on the air and joking about it. He was talking about commercial toilet paper and not the kind we use at home.
So, why the toilet hoarding, and, to a lesser extent, hand sanitizer, paper towels and wipes? It gives us a sense of control when we feel hopeless over the spread of a deadly disease. We try to eliminate one type of superficial risk entirely because we can, but it often backfires. People buy toilet paper to ease their anxiety, but then toilet paper sells out, and people get frustrated and emotional and worried about toilet paper running out — a problem they helped create. So an action that initially comforts us, ends up doing the exact opposite. “This is not a rational behavior,” says Amna Kirmani, the Ralph J. Tyser Professor of Marketing at Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. “This is based on fear. It is emotional; it is a gut reaction.”
When this happens, we run out of T.P. in the short-term, but the shortage doesn’t last long. People use an average of about 100 rolls of toilet paper a year, and there’s generally plenty for everyone in the long term, when the masses don’t stockpile it (we promise). Many companies have said they are better prepared for a sudden rush this time around, anyway, unlike when pandemic shutdowns began in March.
We can control these irrational actions if we consciously try to be kind and remind ourselves that we need to make sure there is enough for everyone. We have to remind ourselves there is plenty to go around, and we have to trust the country’s supply system. Each of us has more control than we think if we follow the safety guidelines offered by health professionals, and focus on wearing masks, social distancing and keeping our gatherings small and outdoors — rather than on panic shopping paper products.
Think about your family, particularly the children, as motivation not to hoard shop, suggests Sharon Hoover, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. When children see parents hoarding and practicing other survival mechanisms, they may take on the anxiety of their parents, she said. So for the sake of the children, resist the urge to buy toilet paper until you really need it.
Instead, take advantage of the deals right now and buy something that brings joy to your life and reduces the stress, rather than creates it. How about a robot vacuum cleaner to help with the chores or an adult coloring book or online yoga membership? Or maybe focus on holiday gifts and buying and bringing joy to others in this season of Thanksgiving. Goodness knows we can all use some cheer in our life in these not so joyous times.
The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.