This is the real reason we’re stockpiling toilet paper

The man had used associates to purchase 150 packets of toilet paper.

The man had used associates to purchase 150 packets of toilet paper. Photo: Twitter/@SoniaCrestpac

The great toilet paper shortage of 2020 is all in our heads.

Empty shelves and full trolleys are just fuelling the perception that we’re going to run out of loo rolls, thanks to the spread of coronavirus.

Don’t worry about Woolworths enforcing a four pack-per-customer limit.

Try not to buy into the tales of supermarket aisle stampedes as the new normal.

Don’t set up watch on your porch to protect any deliveries from potential thieves.

  • Read the latest news on how the virus is impacting Australians as of Thursday morning, here 

In a perfect storm of fear, misinformation and psychology, we’re creating an Emperor’s new clothes situation.

Except in this case, everyone’s clothed and just copying each other’s shopping habits.

It’s tricky to pinpoint where, how or who started it, but all of a sudden, supermarket shelves have struggled to restock toilet paper as quick as people can buy it.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was even forced to address the issue on Tuesday, telling journalists at a COVID-19 press conference that he’d spoken to the major supermarkets to confirm there were no signs of a shortage on the horizon.

Keep calm, Mr Morrison said, there’s plenty of rolls to go around.

So why are we still buying into the panic?

It all comes down to our brains, Deakin University marketing expert Michael Callaghan said.

To fuel a particular kind of group-think consumer behaviour, Dr Callaghan told The New Daily, all you need is a rumour.

“All you need to do is whisper something is going to be scarce,” Dr Callaghan said.

Add in a bit of media beat-up and before you know it, it’s a hot commodity that everyone is scrambling to get their hands on.

“There’s this subconscious reaction, I must get some – even if I don’t need it,” Dr Callaghan said.

He explained: If we go to the supermarket, despite knowing what we need to get, we’re still peeking into others’ trolleys, to make sure we’re not missing out on something.

“If you notice everybody’s got three big packs of toilet paper – even if you haven’t seen the news – you think it’s really cheap, or you think something bad’s going on,” he said.

“Even the informed will start buying it. It’s that underlying FOMO.”

FOMO – the fear of missing out – triggers our fundamental human urge to join the herd, or we’re at risk of experiencing an adversity. In this case, being without toilet paper.

The supermarkets’ game plan behind toilet paper doesn’t help, as Associate Professor Gary Mortimer told The New Daily on Tuesday.

Toilet paper – a bulky item – takes up a lot of shelf and storage space. So supermarkets don’t keep any more on site than they know is traditionally bought within a 48-hour turnaround.

A couple of people buying a couple of extra packs makes the situation (or shelves in this case) look a lot dire than it really is – empty shelves are interpreted as a shortage, which equals panic buying.

Perfect storm brewing

We’re getting toilet paper FOMO from all angles. If it’s not physically in the shop, it’s thrown at us on social media or traditional media.

And it’s not just in Australia.

The buy up is happening overseas, too – the US, Europe and even Japan, where bidets are at their most popular.

(Coincidentally, 10 Daily has reported that Google searches in Australia for bidets have soared some 350 per cent in the past week.)

As politicians and experts warned people to prepare for the possibility of having to self-isolate for 14 days, should they start to display coronavirus symptoms or come into contact with someone with the virus, people heard that as “prepare for the end of days”, Dr Callaghan said.

“Some people – idiots – got excited and decided they need to race out and stock up to have a year’s supply of toilet paper,” he said.

“When you think about it, how long is the recommendation for self-quarantine? Fourteen days. That’s 14 days you might want to have enough supplies on hand for. But how many people are going to use 48 rolls of toilet paper in 14 days?”

No need to worry – unless you’re a boutique business

There’s no need to stockpile or panic about running out of toilet paper.

Most of Australia’s toilet paper is produced in South Australia, and while the main companies have amped up their production levels slightly to cope with the demand, we’re assured all is well.

The best thing we can do is just breathe, and buy what we need, experts from all sides of the situation have repeatedly said.

There’s only a sliver of the Australian community that could find themselves in a pinch, Dr Callaghan said, and that’s small-time toilet paper producers.

Because everyone’s buying up big now, companies are whittling down their storage levels.

“But there’s only so many bottoms that need wiping,” Dr Callaghan said.

“Soon, people won’t need to buy toilet paper because they’ve got 100 rolls stockpiled in their cupboard. So there will be a slowdown in buying, and that’s when we could see a dent in the industry.”

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