Target employees hand out toilet paper to customers and sell out shortly after resupplying the stock, Saturday, March 14, 2020.
It’s about 10:30 on Friday morning, and I’m standing in the paper goods aisle of a CVS in East Mesa where the toilet paper should be.
“We’re sold out,” Stephen Karenke, a CVS manager in training, tells me. “We’re not expecting our next shipment until Monday.”
The good news is that most of the liquor in the store is on sale, and there appears to be plenty of it. But old-time journalism stereotypes aside, that’s not what I came for.
I am on a quest for toilet paper. Call it the paper chase. I will spend the entire day visiting nearly every kind of store within a six-mile radius of my house trying to find one that has it in stock.
And in the process, I will try to understand why people think they need to have it so badly that they’re willing to stand in line and buy up everything in sight.
It’s all seemingly in response to the spread of coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, a serious matter that has been shuttering schools, sporting events and gatherings of all types. But the virus, or fear of it, also triggered outbreaks of panic-buying that stretches from well-intentioned to bizarre.
For the past two or three weeks, Karenke says, his store has seen a run on hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol, face masks and zinc lozenges, but the toilet paper thing mystifies him.
“The only thing I can think of is if you have to self-quarantine, but then why aren’t you also getting food? It blows my mind.”
He’s not the only one.
A mile away, the toilet paper aisle at Bashas’ is as bare as a baby’s bottom.
“This shocks me, absolutely shocks me,” says customer Jim Andrews.
As we’re talking a woman walks by and says, “I feel like I’m back in the Midwest before a big storm, only there it’s all the milk that’s gone.”
Andrews feels the media is to blame. I ask him what he means by that, and he says he feels the pandemic is overblown, and the panic is something that’s been ginned up by the media to get more people to watch shows or click on stories.
“It’s all about eyeballs,” he says.
When I push back and ask him if we should ignore what official government agencies are telling us and not report it, he shrugs and admits it’s a complicated situation.
As for the toilet paper, the store director tells me they’ve been out since the night before, but are expecting more deliveries that night. He suggests I try a nearby Target or another nearby CVS.
As I leave, I notice an Ace Hardware next door, and since I’m already there, I decide on a whim to pop in to see if they if they sell toilet paper. Turns out they do. Who knew? Only they’re out. And the warehouse is out. Ditto with hand sanitizer and face masks.
“It’s been crazy for at least a week,” the clerk tells me.
Not that it’s any consolation, but they do have plenty of sandpaper in stock.
As I begin tweeting about my quest, I see a friend’s social media post that the delivery date on her Amazon toilet paper order changed from two days to March 23 before she’d even completed her order.
I head into another CVS where the story is the same, as it is at Albertsons, Circle K and a Shell gas station convenience market. Not a square to spare.
I even poke my head in to a Sally’s Beauty Supply to see if they sell toilet paper, which they don’t.
“Have you gotten a lot of people asking about it?” I ask the clerk. “No, you’re the first one,” she says.
In my effort to understand the psychology of panic buying, I reach out to several eminent behavioral economists, but none of them respond. Presumably they are all out buying toilet paper. Either that, or they’re on spring break, like most American universities.
I do find a bunch of academic studies on the subject of panic buying, including one by William M. Strahle and E.H. Bonfield of Rider College in Advances in Consumer Research.
In their 1989 paper “Understanding Consumer Panic: A Sociological Perspective,” they note that, “In a crisis situation, there is a breakdown in the intellectual abilities of the individual in terms of processing information, assessing the environment, and analyzing alternatives.”
They add that, “The greater the perceived time pressure, the smaller the number of alternatives considered, the greater the likelihood that decisions will be made before necessary, and the greater the likelihood of incorrect choice of alternatives.”
This is an academic way of saying people lose their minds in a crisis and make bad decisions.
At my next stop, Target, Chris Crook, a management consultant from Mesa, seems to subscribe to the Strahle-Bonfield theory.
“It’s silly” he says. “My wife has been to eight stores” looking for toilet paper. “It’s pure panic, totally irrational.”
Alas, at Target too, the toilet paper aisle looks like the Cabbage Patch Kids section of a Toys’R’Us on Christmas Eve of 1985. (Note to young readers: Ask your parents. It was a thing.)
On my way out, I ask the clerk how long they’ve been out and when the next shipment is coming in.
She tells me that she’s just heard through her earpiece that a pallet of toilet paper is on the way out to the shelves from the stockroom.
“But you’d better hurry,” she says.
I power walk my way back to the toilet paper section, and spy a young man in a red polo shirt piloting a flat-bed pushcart down the aisle with four boxes of toilet paper. Before he can even get to the toilet paper section, he is accosted and doles out the entire contents of one of the cases.
He makes his way to aisle and is quickly surrounded. He begins handing out packages to each customer.
“It’s gold, it’s gold,” one woman says, letting out a sigh of relief.
The supply is gone in less than two minutes. None of it ever reaches the shelves.
One package does make its way into the hands of your humble narrator. Mission accomplished after seven stores.
But I still want to find out what was driving the panic buying, so I head across Power Road to Home Depot, where I hear they might have a shipment.
There I run into Patrick Zawacky, a construction worker who lives in north Phoenix and travels around the Valley for various jobs and is in desperate need of toilet paper.
He has a wife and two daughters at home and is down to his last four rolls — single ply that he’d pilfered from his camper the night before.
“It’s insanity,” he says. “I can’t wrap my head around it.”
“I get that we should be safe and sanitary, but it doesn’t seem like it should be happening with chaos like this.”
He says the real impact of the panic hit home when his daughter’s high school choir trip to Hawaii was canceled because of the pandemic.
She’d worked to raise money for the trip and wasn’t sure if she’d get back what she’d paid.
“She’s pretty bummed,” he says.
Unfortunately, the Home Depot is also sold out of toilet paper, and an employee says she doesn’t know when the next shipment will come in.
I head off in search of other customers to talk with, and when I get back to my car, I see the package I’d just bought at Target. I go back into Home Depot to offer a couple of rolls to Zawacky, but he’s already gone.
After Home Depot, I hit a nearby Safeway and a Walgreens. Both have shelves that look like a Lake Havasu liquor store after spring break.
“I’ve been doing this 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” a Walgreens employee says. “It’s mass hysteria.”
From there I head to a Walmart Neighborhood Market, where a customer tells me to try the larger Super Walmart a couple miles up the road.
When I get there, I park in front of a Dollar Store and decide to check there first. Same story.
As I’m leaving, I see a young man carrying a giant package of toilet paper to his car and a mom and two daughters — all wearing facemasks — running toward Walmart.
I head in and get to the toilet paper aisle just as a pair of stock clerks are putting up the last of several cases of the smallest toilet paper rolls I’ve ever seen.
The clerk says she’s allowing two per customer, but she adds that after they are done stocking, no one will be there to police it.
Nevertheless it’s gone in minutes. Two men walking by notice the commotion and one of them steps up to grab a pack. He asks his friend if he wants one too.
“No,” he says. “I’ll just use leaves. There’s leaves outside and they’re free.”
I think he’s joking, but you never know.
Outside, a guy with a cart full of toilet paper and several cases of ramen says he had a buddy who works at Walmart alert him as they were about to stock TP.
He rushed down and grabbed a bunch.
“If it’s available, I might as well buy it as opposed to needing it and not having it be available,” he said.
It seemed to be the most common-sense thing I’d heard that day, and as it turns out there’s social science to back it up.
In an article earlier this month, Professor Andy J. Yap of INSEAD in Singapore and Charlene Y. Chen, a professor at Nanyang Technological University there, suggest that panic buying of practical items, especially items associated with problem-solving, might give consumers at least some feeling of control in a crisis.
Long after my personal quest ends, Yap replies to an email I’ve sent him (no word on whether he spent Friday looking for toilet paper) to elaborate.
“According to evolutionary theory, it is this ability to exercise control that has helped our species survive.” he writes. “Hence, it is very distressing when we perceive that things are not within our control. COVID19 threatens our sense of control, which led to similar patterns of panic buying all over the world. Many of the products people buy (except toilet paper) such as masks and disinfectant, seem to help restore one’s sense of control.”
There’s another twist, though, that he says reveals just how much we might be losing our individual minds and running with the pack.
“There was a rumor that Wuhan and China produces toilet paper,” he says. “Citizens in Hong Kong started to panic buy toilet paper because they were worried that they may run out. But for some reason, other countries followed suit. The world’s toilet paper does not come from Wuhan! These psycho-social processes led to herd mentality and behavior.”
As I’m leaving the Mesa Walmart, my editor texts me that the newsroom is seeing social media reports that a Costco in Scottsdale had been closed by fire marshals — presumably after being overwhelmed by customers in a wave of panic buying. It seems unlikely, but we take our best guess and I head to the Costco near Scottsdale Airport.
When I get there, everything seems normal — several employees tell me they’d been open all day without interruption — but since I’m there, I go ahead and check out the TP situation.
All gone. A guy driving a pallet jack tells me they’ll get more that night, but if I want any, I’d better get there early on Saturday.
Back in Mesa, I hit a CVS (nothing until next week), a Fry’s Food Store (a chance they’ll get some overnight), a dollar store and a Food City (nothing).
At Ranch Market, I’m told the stock had just been replenished but was gone in the blink if an eye.
On my way out, I meet Adam Nava and his wife, Anna, in the checkout line with a full grocery cart including several packages of toilet paper.
They tell me it’s their normal weekly shopping for their extended family of 10 people. They had just arrived when the store set out a four-foot high pallet of toilet paper and just got lucky.
Across the intersection at El Super, I see Wendy Menendez staring at the empty shelves where the toilet paper should have been. She’s already been to five stores and has just come from Ranch Market, where she missed out on the Navas’ luck.
She and her family are down to one roll for each bathroom.
Luckily, she said she has six boys, so what they have will last a lot longer than if she had six girls.
“It’s crazy, ridiculous, honestly,” she told me. “People are panicking. I don’t understand why people are buying all the water and the toilet paper. This is not a virus where you get diarrhea.”
I hit one more store — my neighborhood Sprouts — on the way home. Same story.
In all, I have visited 20 stores and put 12,000 steps on my fitness tracker. I have found only two stores that have toilet paper in stock, however briefly, and one that I just missed.
And I think back to all of my econ classes and what usually happens with shortages.
The first is that hoarding can lead to violence, especially if there are no available substitutes, but hopefully it won’t come to that. The guy at Walmart had mentioned leaves. … Most of the grocery stores I went to had corn on the cob in their produce sections. Several friends posted information about bidets as I documented my paper chase on Twitter.
And I happen to know where you can get a supply of paper delivered to your driveway every morning, although it may be a bit scratchy and the ink might rub off on your bum.
The second thing that happens in shortages is black markets and gouging, where people sell highly desirable goods for an exorbitant price.
On e-Bay, I find a nine-pack of Angel Soft bath tissue is going for $89.
I ponder where to set the starting bid for my nine-roll mega-pak of Cottonelle.
In the end, though, turning away from social media for a little while might help us. Professor Yap’s email to me notes one other thing.
“Feeling a loss of control causes one to look towards others and conform,” he says. “When we see vivid images and videos of panic buying on social media, we feel the need to engage in the very same behavior as we fear that we may lose out.”
How are you coping with the unknowns of coronavirus, and the new normal of how we’re handling it in Arizona? Tell us what you’re stopping, what changes you’re making, and what you’re stocking up on. We’ll talk about it with you every day on azcentral.com. Email John D’Anna at firstname.lastname@example.org and Karina Bland at email@example.com.
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