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Mystery Solved

The Great 2020

Bathroom Tissue 'Hoard'


By Cheryl Eichar Jett
Opinion/Analysis

   (RP News) - 8/3/2020 - None of us will forget the events of the first half of 2020 – the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest drop in the U.S. economy in history, record business closings and job losses, and the politicization of everything from the mask to the virus itself. As of this writing, there have been 155,000 deaths heading up to a possible and unthinkable 200,000.
   Then there was the toilet paper shortage.
An assortment of toilet paper roles and packages.
In the middle of March, when closings were about to begin and the news coverage of the pandemic expanded, consumer panic buying was in full swing. Staples, canned goods, snacks, shelf-stable foods, bottled water, flour, you name it, were all flying off the shelves as customers packed the grocery stores. And disinfectant, wipes, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper flat out disappeared. TV news shows were quick to highlight the shortages and showed scenes of packed stores, frenzied shoppers, long lines, overflowing shopping carts, and empty shelves.
   By June, supply was catching up with demand, and tissue was again available most everywhere, although customers sometimes had to settle for less than their preferred brand or abide by the store's package limits.
   Then, the Max Planck Institute (https://www.mpg.de/en) in Germany published the results of a study conducted in March with 1,029 adults from 35 countries, and the shortage was once again a topic of interest.
   The researchers had set out to investigate “the relation between personality traits, perceived threat of COVID-19, and stockpiling of toilet paper in an online survey (N = 996) across 22 countries. (Citation: Garbe L, Rau R, Toppe T (2020) Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0234232.
   Using a personality assessment called the HEXACO Inventory, the researchers assessed the participants' purchases according to six personality characteristics, finding that participants high in “conscientiousness” and “emotionality” were most likely to panic-buy or hoard. The study also revealed that, not surprisingly due to increased risk from COVID-19 in the elderly, age was a factor in the “emotionality” category.
   The study concluded that, “The most robust predictor of toilet paper stockpiling was the perceived threat posed by COVID-19. People who feel more threatened by the pandemic stockpile more toilet paper. Given that stockpiling is objectively unrelated to saving lives or jobs during a health crisis, this finding supports the notion that toilet paper functions as a purely subjective symbol of safety. We also found that this effect was partly based on the personality factor of Emotionality. Around 20 percent of the differences in toilet paper consumption that were explained by feelings of threat were based on people’s dispositional tendency to worry a lot and generally feel anxious. At the same time, the remaining 80 percent of this effect were not found to be rooted in personality differences.”
   What about the other 80 percent?
   To supplement the study results, I conducted a small and unscientific survey on Facebook, to which 64 friends replied to my three questions: (1) Do you think that you hoarded in March? (2) If so, why? (3) Are you now having problems finding toilet paper available to buy? The 49 female and 15 male respondents live in 16 different U.S. states plus two European countries. I did not ask for respondents' ages in this informal poll.
   Out of the 64 respondents, all but two answered question #1 with “no,” but often qualified their answers with statements that they regularly keep a “reasonable” stockpile and/or get subscription deliveries of a certain brand. Question #2 (why did you hoard) applied to only two of the respondents, and their answers were not relevant to the pandemic. One revealed that a family member had hoarded a lifetime's worth of tissue. The other stated that along with a family member, they had stockpiled years' worth in anticipation of a serious crisis after the 2016 election.
   To Question #3 (are you currently having problems getting tissue?), almost all simply replied “no.” Some elaborated by stating that they could not always find their preferred brand, or that a trip to more than one store was occasionally necessary. Overall, everyone is buying tissue now with little or no problem.
A toilet paper making machine for sale.

   My poll results showed a group of people who generally maintained an adequate or a little extra stock (with the exception of the two with large stockpiles), and did not seem to exhibit panic-buying. Although I did not ask the same questions as the Institute's researchers did, it would appear that my poll respondents generally do not equate to the 20 percent in the Institute's study whose stockpiling was attributed to their “conscientiousness” or “emotionality.”
   As I see it, there is another factor that actually skewed the whole panic-buying scenario. As workers and students moved from commercial buildings and schools to their homes, factories were forced to scale back the production of large industrial rolls for use in commercial and institutional buildings to produce more of the smaller rolls, affecting production, warehousing, and trucking. This lag time looked suspiciously like a shortage of domestic-sized rolls, but was actually a shift in product demand.
   Does the time lag due to manufacturing adjustments, and/or other factors, make up for the unexplained 80 percent from the Max Planck Institute study? Perhaps another study is needed. But in the meantime, I'm not sure anyone is waiting breathlessly for more study results – or another shortage. Maybe we're just ready to move on and forget all about the toilet paper “hoard” of 2020.