Amazed (at the stupidity) and fascinated (by idiocy) by binge and panic shopper, I was compelled to ponder specifically about the toilet paper shortage in light of the recent pandemic (“corona virus”). This blog is will reflect on the reasoning provided by shoppers, and psychologists, a look at the economic statistics and realities of the industry, along with some recent data and analytics. I’ll also provide some links to helpful resources about the virus and real-time data world-wide. Hope you’ll find it as intriguing as much as helpful.
Toiler Paper Economics
According to the CNBC report, Costco sells about one billion rolls a year (this is a couple of year old, so I’d increase that number by a few millions more). That’s enough toilet paper to wrap around the world 1,200 times…even with 2012 usage metrics.
Since toilet paper sales make Costco $400 million annually, which accounts for 12 percent of sales of all its categories.
Revenue in the Toilet Paper segment amounts to US $13,235m, that’s $13+ BILLION in 2020. The market is expected to grow annually by 2.2% (CAGR 2020-2023). That doesn’t even count the panic-buying figures as of recent due to the virus outbreak!
Word-wide, most countries use this essential item despite some using just a pot of water, while others use bidets and other tools, but which country sells (and uses) the most?
Most revenue is generated in China (US$16+ BILLION in 2020 to-date). In relation to total population figures, per person revenues of US$39.99 are generated in 2020 by the toilet manufactures and retailers.
Canadians aren’t too happy about the americans wiping themselves with their trees either! The average American uses 3 rolls of t.p. per week—a recent report by an environmental agency claims that “Americans are flushing away Canadian forests.”
Stand.earth and the National Resources Defense Council just released a report describing the “tree-to-toilet” pipeline, concluding that “the consequences for Indigenous Peoples…and the global climate are devastating.”
Okay, I don’t know how Greta Thunberg wipes herself, but the teen eco-activist certainly would have more opinion on this over just saying “HOW DARE YOU!”. But let’s get to burning issue on hand!
Why do people buy so much toiler papers during crisis?
CNBC’s Chloe Taylor reached out to a London psychologist to unravel some of the mystery, and he was flush with ideas:
Dimitrios Tsivrikos, lecturer in consumer and business psychology at University College London, toilet paper has become an “icon” of mass panic.
“In times of uncertainty, people enter a panic zone that makes them irrational and completely neurotic,” he told CNBC. “In other disaster conditions like a flood, we can prepare because we know how many supplies we need, but we have a virus now we know nothing about…When you enter a supermarket, you’re looking for value and high volumes.”
His noted that people are drawn to the large packaging that toilet paper comes in when they are looking to regain a sense of control.
Hmm, so Stocking up on LARGE, CHEAP, ESSENTIAL ITEMS = Sense of CONTROL
Vice.com reporters around various cities and countries (starting with Australia where it all started allegedly) interested the shoppers, especially those with piles of t.p. on their carts right after the Corona virus outbreak outside of China.
Here are some Q&A line items:
Q: Why are you stockpiling toilet paper?
Answers by different shoppers:
Shopper A: “I don’t know, it’s just in demand right now for some reason, so I’ve got to get some.”
Shopper B: “I would say I’m buying all this for the sake of precaution. It’s important to maintain hygiene, you know with the virus and all that.”
Shopper C: “I just know all my friends are going crazy over toilet paper. And all my relatives overseas as well, everyone’s very concerned about this situation.”
Q: What do you think was the main thing that sparked this panic?
Shopper D: “Definitely the news for sure.”
Q: Why do you think Australians are buying toilet paper of all things?
Shopper E: “I think they’re just scared. They’re scared they can’t leave their house and they’ll run out. It’s some type of group panic thing that’s going on.”
Back to the experts…
“There is comfort in knowing that it’s there,” psychologist Mary Alvord, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the George Washington University School of Medicine told Time. “We all eat and we all sleep and we all poop. It’s a basic need to take care of ourselves.”
I’d guess, in general, less eating = less pooping. But who wants to eat less in the first-world?
According to psychologists, toilet paper has a primal, even infantile associations connected with the body’s function in a way we’ve been taught from toddlerhood.
According to Paul Marsden, a consumer psychologist at the University of the Arts London, it is simply the psychology of “retail therapy” — where we buy to manage our emotional state.
Hmmm, never heard of going shopping as a therapy before, have you by any chance?
He continued: “It’s about taking back control in a world where you feel out of control. More generally, panic buying can be understood as playing to our three fundamental psychology needs: autonomy (a need for control), relatedness (that is, “we are shopping” vs “I’m shopping”), and competence—which is achieved when making a purchase gives people a sense that they are “smart shoppers.”
Most t.p.s were sold out in Walmart and the likes. If you’re looking a date or long-term partner, smart shopper would be a good bet, right?
Let’s continue…(it’s starting to make sense now)
Sky News asked several psychologists about the psychology behind panic buying, and why toilet paper commodity has been in such a high demand.
Emma Kenny, a psychologist, TV presenter, writer and expert media commentator, recognised as one of the UK’s leading TV psychological experts commented: “It’s really interesting to see people are stockpiling things like toilet paper; that’s not going to get you from A to B in a life or death situation – food is what people would need. That’s why it’s clear that people are not really that concerned about the virus itself but more about holding on to those first-world comforts of being able to use the toilet.”
So, let’s chalk that up as “irrational” behavior?
Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, an expert in consumer and behavioural science at the University College London opined “…in public health issues we have no idea about the time or intensity and we get messages on a daily basis that we should go into panic mode that we buy into more than we need to…The bigger they are, the more important we think they are.”
Ok, I think I’ve heard enough! If this doesn’t make more sense now as to the t.p. panic, nothing will 🙂 All I know is that the old joke below might have some truth behind it…
With humor left in the rear-view mirror, let’s look at some data about the culprit, the virus itself…
Perhaps it’s not because men are dumber or braver than women but the death rate doesn’t take kindly to men. Male are the most susceptible based on world-wide data we know so far.
Based on the data I retrieved as of today (March 15, 2020), here’s my chart that summarizes the total cases, deaths, new cases, and fatality as a percent. The percentage growth considers the number of cases before the new cases were added and compares with the added (these are all positive figures) amount.
As you can see, China’s growth has stabilized or even stopped to almost zero, while places in Europe have grown recently by large portions. Most deaths outside of China are Italy and Iran…and recently Spain’s numbers look dismal too. This was a breakdown by top 10 countries (by number of cases), but world-wide, independent of countries, the cumulative stats are below:
As you can see by connecting the above 2 metrics, highest fatality percentages are in Italy (even more than China!), Iran, and Spain and China are about the same. USA is still well under the global 4% fatality rate.
Then gleaning the national (US) data I could find, my following 2 graphics shows a glimpse of the situation at home:
This is showing the 20 states with most number of cases to-date (3/15/20). It clearly shows that most confirmed cases are in WA state, NY, CA, FL, CO in that order. The fatality rate is also by far the highest in WA within the country (hence the state of emergency, and first to get FEMA and CDC attention and Fed funds). However, the fatality rate here as calculated only considers the top 20 states (i.e. by the number of cases)…which brings us to the next chart with more surprising revelation.
It is much more of a death-sentence for a patient in Kansas, and South Dakota (12.5% and 11% respectively) albeit the confirmed number of cases are much lower than the top 20 states.
Let’s also take a look at if age has any bearing…
And clearly it does. For 40 or under, the chance of survival even after contracting the virus is virtually 100%. Quickly though, this looks less encouraging from 60 or over.
However, it’s also worth noting that there were pre-existing conditions in ALL of these cases. Here’s a look at death rate by pre-existing conditions:
One thing that stood out to me was that patients with Hypertension are more likely to succumb to this virus than with Cancer or respiratory disease (I had expected respiratory to be #1).
So, there you have it! All this data is NOT guaranteed to be updated (they’re most recent as of 3/15/2020) as the real-time data sites are hard at work 24/7 to provide accurate information. Some links below on such resources, but most importantly, I hope this article was informative, mind-tickling, and butt-warming.
Stay safe. Wash hands often. Stay alive. Live and let live.
(NOTE: Both of the previous 2 charts are based on world-wide data, not US-only)
Attribution and sources, including, but not limited to: Sky News, CNBC, Fortune, Time, Washington Post, WorldOMeters, Stand.earth, Costco, Statista.com, MediaIte, and others for interview transcripts, and various data points.