Why Toilet Paper?: COVID-19 Crisis Creates Low Supply

Recently, these shelves that used to be stocked with toilet paper are now empty. Stores have had to limit customers on many items because of the COVID-19’s impact on daily life (Photo by Ryan Lemanski).

Due to the emergence of COVID-19, there are many unpredictable events going on around the world. Masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes and other products have seen a rise in demand, but there is one item that stands out. That item is toilet paper, and people cannot get enough of it. 

Toilet paper has been nearly out of stock at most stores. Even as one of the most predictable consumer items, toilet paper has skyrocketed in demand over the past few weeks. This and many other factors have had a ripple effect on the stock of toilet paper in stores across America and other first-world countries. 

Psychologically, there is a herd effect amongst people as we follow what others are doing. Scientists Ramsey M. Raafat, Chris Frith and Nick Chater explored this in a study, Herding In Humans, originally published in Trends in Cognitive Science, a peer reviewed journal. The trio broadly defined herding in humans as “the alignment of the thoughts or behaviors of individuals in a group through local interaction and without centralized coordination.” 

This definition goes to show how people have followed in each others’ footsteps. There is no new value to toilet paper, but people do as others before them out of sheer instinct. So remember at the store that there are other people who need the same resources and buying more than necessary limits them from getting something they legitimately need. 

Media coverage on the purchase of toilet paper has most likely only influenced more people to buy it. As people see others getting it, they begin to believe that they need to buy it as well. 

Logically, if people are prohibited from leaving the house, having extra toilet paper does make sense. No one would want to run out of that.

In terms of supply, there are a few economic reasons that toilet paper is not always in full stock now. 

An economist and business strategist for the Mead Corporation, a very large toilet paper distributor, Jim Luke explains a few of these reasons on his website

The first reason for low supply is a large distributional mismatch. Toilet paper is produced in only a few mills, but it is made in massive quantities. So, when consumers buy more than they actually use in a day, the toilet paper supply runs low. 

Toilet paper takes up more space than most consumer products but generates less profit. As a result, stores only hold a few days worth of inventory and restock very often  

“Its dollar value per cubic foot of space is very low,” said Luke. 

People are living in a time where they must prepare to be home for months. Stockpiling up on food and water is the priority, but toilet paper runs a higher risk of running out before anything else. People can store a month’s worth of food in a much smaller space than a month’s supply of toilet paper. For this reason, among others, the scare of any form of lockdown makes toilet paper seem more important than usual. 

There is little that can be predicted in uncertain times like these, but it is important to make sure people are safe and prepared for difficult times. It does not, however,  mean that there is a need to buy a year’s supply of toilet paper. Remember that there are others out there with the same needs. 

About Ryan Lemanski 11 Articles
Ryan is a senior from West Bloomfield, Mi. He loves running around campus getting stories from students and exploring the nature center.

1 Comment

  1. People buy more because they’re using much more–at home. Normally, they would use some toilet paper at work or school. Now all their usage is at home. There might be some psychological hoarding, but not necessarily. Supplies would have been exhausted anyway.

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