Did you ever imagine that people all around the world would embark on a toilet paper buying frenzy, leaving none on supermarket shelves and forcing retailers to ration this essential product for months on end?
Well that's exactly what happened in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
From Australia to Asia and Europe to the USA, consumers stockpiled household staples in response to the fear and uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the infection rate sky-rocketed around the world and whole nations went into lock-down, people became afraid that supply chains would be interrupted, shops would close, and they would be house-bound - leaving them without the bare necessities during the health crisis.
While most countries experienced panic buying, Australians were the world's most extreme panic buyers. One product came to symbolise this stockpiling - toilet paper!
The panic buying blitz led to widespread stock shortages of toilet paper for months in early 2020, leaving many consumers unable to buy it and forcing manufacturers and distributors to work around the clock to keep up with demand. For example, LaManna Supermarket in Essendon Fields, Melbourne, sold 3 months worth of toilet paper in 1 week in late March.
Can you guess how many rolls of toilet paper were bought in Australia during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020? Well, the short answer is a lot!
In just one week at the peak of the toilet paper crisis in mid-March, it is estimated that a mind-boggling 39.7 MILLION rolls of toilet paper were bought by Australians from just one of the four large supermarket chains, Woolworths! That's 1.5 rolls for each Australian for that week! Imagine the total number of rolls if we added in all the other stores selling toilet paper.
In Australia, toilet paper hoarding started in late February and didn't stop until early May. During the panic buying a great divide began to appear, with some shoppers filling their trolleys to overflowing with hundreds of rolls while others got none. Images of empty toilet paper shelves went viral, and hashtags such as #toiletpaperwars trended on social media. Some roguish jokers even listed their prized loo paper on Ebay and Facebook Marketplace - at $1,000 per roll! Sadly, there were also physical clashes between some customers in stores, as they raced to get their hands on the precious packs of loo paper.
This unprecedented level of stockpiling of toilet paper, and the inequity that went with it, triggered Australia's major supermarkets to introduce rationing in the first few days of March. The restrictions started at 4 packets of toilet paper per customer, but within days this was slashed to 1 packet per customer - a limit that didn't change for two months. Security guards were brought in to monitor customer behaviour and public notices were issued asking consumers to be considerate in the way they shopped.
Finally, toilet paper rationing came to an end in the first weeks of May. Manufacturers and distributors had caught up with supply, and as Australia 'flattened the curve' of infection and adapted to the 'new normal' of living with the virus, demand dropped back down to near normal levels.
Postscript - In late June 2020, an increase in the community transmission of COVID-19 infection in Victoria and the fear of a second wave of the pandemic triggered some Victorians to start panic buying toilet paper, and other items, again, but on a much smaller scale than earlier in the year. On 24 June, Woolworths reintroduced purchase limits on toilet paper of two packets per customer, while the next day Coles applied a limit of 1 pack per customer. This story hasn't come to an end yet, so watch this space...
Interview by Nick Crotty with LaManna Supermarket, 11 June 2020.