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Here we go again: Stores see another run on paper products

Jaymi Butler

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Though there are no plans for another shutdown at this time, stores like Publix are once again seeing toilet paper and paper towels flying off the shelves.

Shoppers may be experiencing an unpleasant sense of déjà vu when they visit the toilet paper aisle at the grocery store. 

As Covid numbers continue to climb, stores such as Publix are bringing back purchase limits on paper towels and bath tissue due to “much higher customer demand,” according to director of communications Maria Brous. 

“In addition to the limits we have in place, we ask customers to shop only for the items they need,” she said, adding that individual stores also reserve the right to limit quantities. 

What’s happening now is eerily reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, when panicked shoppers loaded up on toilet paper, paper towels and nonperishable foods in advance of lockdown orders. According to research, online and in-store sales of toilet paper shot up by 845 percent on March 11 and 12 as states announced lockdowns, creating a vicious cycle of shortages – along with plenty of memes. 

panic room

Phil Trocchia, a professor of marketing at the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus who studies consumer behavior, said that there are a number of reasons that people resort to panic buying. First, there’s the FOMO – fear of missing out – mindset.

“If you see there’s a shortage of toilet paper and other paper products, you think “something’s going on,”” he said. “If a product is in short supply, it must be desirable and I’d better get some before they’re out completely.”

Another reason that people hoard during times of crisis is psychological. 

“It gives people a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation,” Trocchia said “People think ‘I’ve got toilet paper, napkins and canned goods. At least I can take care of myself and my family.’”

Then there’s the matter of logistics. According to Associated Press research, toilet paper flows from paper mills to retail stores through a tight, efficient supply chain. It’s bulky and not very profitable so retailers don’t keep a lot of inventory on hand. Instead, they just get frequent shipments and restock their shelves.

“The supply chain is resilient,” Brous said. “We need to do our part and allow it an opportunity to rebound.”

Trocchia said he’s optimistic that people will remember what they learned during the last round of shortages and won’t fall into the same pattern of panic buying. 

“If people in March found themselves with an overabundance of toilet paper and they still have it, they should have an idea that they really don’t need to do this again,” he said. “I’m hoping maybe it won’t be that bad this time.”

He’s also hopeful that kindness will prevail, especially as we enter the holiday season.

“Buy enough for a month or so but think of your fellow humans,” he said. “Let’s be good to each other.”

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