Will There Be Another Toilet Paper Shortage In 2021?

It might feel like a lifetime ago, but it was only in March of 2020 that we became aware that something wasn't quite right in America's supermarkets. Far from experiencing the choice paralysis we felt from staring down an endless row of varieties, we were seeing empty shelves arising from COVID-driven panic buying and hoarding

Most of the panic buyers were focused on two things: water and toilet paper. And with the Delta variant triggering COVID-related déjà vu in some states, some of us are probably wondering whether we'll need to head out and stock up on toilet paper again because, well, you know, someone might beat us to it. It doesn't help that recent reports are showing rows upon rows of empty shelves, and Twitter seeing signs of toilet-paper-shortage related complaints. "Headed to Costco and I'm buying all the damn toilet paper," tweeted one. 

"Is it a little tense out there or is it just me? I get the feeling people are eying the toilet paper nefariously," another said.

Some personality types are more likely to buy excessive amounts of toilet paper

Before we ask ourselves whether there were any takeaways from last year's brush with panic buying, as some folks on Twitter have already been doing ("What is wrong with people? Did we not learn from last year at all? I pulled up to Costco and they are out of toilet paper and water. These people never learn," an irate social media user tweeted), we'll probably need to look at a June 2020 study that sought to work out why people were likely to bulk up on essential items like toilet paper. 

The psychologists involved in the study discovered three things: 1) people who felt threatened by the coronavirus pandemic tended to buy more toilet paper (and by more we mean a lot); 2) those led by the heart (aka "emotional") tended to be more skittish about the virus, which led to stockpiling; and 3) those who were more conscientious were also more likely to source, buy, and store TP rolls like squirrels might do with nuts in the winter (via PLOS ONE). This means that if the pandemic were to pick up speed, these personality types will likely to go back to doing what they did last year, which is hoarding. 

The act of hoarding is expected

While keeping a stockpile of toilet paper might appear to be a bit excessive, University of Michigan behavioral psychologist Stephanie Preston says the act of hoarding, in and of itself, is not only the thing — it is expected. As she writes in The Conversation, "Hoarding is actually a totally normal and adaptive behavior that kicks in any time there is an uneven supply of resources. Everyone hoards, even during the best of times, without even thinking about it. People like to have beans in the pantry, money in savings, and chocolates hidden from the children. These are all hoards."

All this explains why, in spite of all the lessons some of us should have learned about hoarding toilet paper from the spring of 2020, including unnecessary shortages and price hikes, we'll likely see the same excessive buying patterns repeated today, particularly if the Delta variant picks up speed. We're already seeing signs of that, with surveys showing seven out of 10 consumers saying they're likely to pick up basic supplies from toilet paper to hand sanitizer "to replenish their pandemic stockpiles" (via Yahoo). And if recent news reports and social media rumblings are anything to go by, we could well be heading for another wild toilet paper ride.