#Toiletpapergate is a strange study into consumer behaviour, but it will be over by Friday

Thinkerbell's Adam Ferrier explains why the toilet paper shortage in response to coronavirus fears began, and why it won't last.

Last week, I spent a fair amount of time doing interviews for the most absurd of topics: the frenzied stockpiling of toilet paper in response to the coronavirus.

Here’s the Google Trends image showing the term ‘toilet paper’ fast catching up on, and (arguably) giving new life to, the far more bleak ‘Coronavirus’.

(Click to enlarge)

Subsequently, I’ve given the phenomenon more thought than most on the planet. So at the risk of documenting something that no one cares about, here’s the reason why there was a toilet paper frenzy in Australia (and other parts of the world).

During the first interviews I did, I couldn’t really explain the full story and blamed the whole thing on psychological factors, namely, the need for control and social norming. But I think the worst is over, and the panic will soon subside.

Need for control

Feeling completely out of control and helpless about a situation doesn’t sit well with consumers. In such situations, we feel a strong internal drive to do what we can to regain a sense that we are in control.

Thus, buying a large supply of toilet paper makes sense in case one has to self-quarantine, or look after a quarantined family member. Further, the scale of toilet paper (large packs) possibly means that it feels like a more substantive purchase and that you are therefore more in control.

Hoarding behaviour like this is, of course, not new and occurs often in times of panic. The products hoarded are normally close to the body (food, medical care, clothing and so on).

In times of panic people do what they can to feel safe – even if that’s just buying some loo paper.

Social norming

Seeing people stockpiling toilet paper encouraged others to do the same; suddenly, it felt like the normal thing to do.

We’re herd-like creatures. We find comfort in doing what others are doing. Indeed, in the interview I did on Seven, Michael Usher, the anchor interviewing me, admitted he too had gone in search of toilet paper that afternoon.

However, that same day, our client at Vegemite, Matt Gray, had rung me to let me know that sales of family packs of Vegemite (the large jars) were up 40% too. That is an incredible jump in sales – but nowhere was this being reported with as much vigour.

This was curious to me, as Vegemite is normally front and centre in any news story. The reason why toilet paper was in the news and Vegemite wasn’t is two-fold: image media and shelf space.

Image media

What makes for a better photo: Someone with a basket full of Sorbent toilet paper, or someone with multiple jars of Vegemite? It’s the former.

There’s something slightly absurd and humorous seeing people with lots of toilet paper in their trolley. And it makes for a great photo opportunity versus jars of food. 

This goes for social media and broadcast too. Show a picture of some poor helpless soul with a boot-full of toilet paper and watch it spread.

Shelf space

The final piece of the puzzle is shelf size. As toilet paper is so big, there can only be so much stocked on shelves at any one time. Therefore, the shelves empty out quicker than shelves of jars of spreads.

This creates metres of empty supermarket shelving: another great photo opportunity.

Which brings us back to the power of social norming and people stocking up because they see others doing the same. All of this creates more media photo opportunities, and more empty shelf space. Around and around it goes.

So the toilet paper absurdity was born from a psychological phenomenon. But its perpetuation is driven by the absurdity-seeking of image-based media, fast news cycles, and limited shelf space in supermarkets. Most of this argument is captured in this piece that appeared in the New York Times – an absurdity in itself.

Finally, we’ve seen the fights in suburban supermarkets break out, namely between a hoarder who has an oversupply in their trolley and someone else demanding they have a pack or two.  When such a staple is at such low supply, and surrounded by such a media circus, it’s no wonder the odd argument will break out. 

However, for a first-class lesson in how not to handle an altercation, see New South Wales Police’s acting inspector Andrew New’s master use of hyperbole and sensationalism as an example. He said of a toilet paper altercation in a supermarket: “There is no need for it. It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max, we don’t need to do that. Violence of this nature will not be tolerated.” 

Way to go Andrew. It’s like pouring kerosene onto a toilet paper bonfire. All the media hear is ‘It’s like Mad Max, it’s like Thunderdome’, and an instant meme is created. The headline itself already has over 7,000 repeats around the world (and that’s only on Google). That’s how you turn an isolated incident into a trend or frenzy.

Most trends are over at about the same rate they start. The quicker the rise, the quicker the fall.  So here’s a prediction, for the record: The frenzy will be over as quickly as it started. I’ll give it ’til Friday.

Adam Ferrier is a consumer psychologist and founder at Thinkerbell


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