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The ‘toilet paper syndrome’ returns: compulsive purchases and empty supermarket shelves | Economy

Shelves for toilet paper in a supermarket in the center of Madrid, on March 18.
Shelves for toilet paper in a supermarket in the center of Madrid, on March 18.Cézaro De Luca (Europa Press)

The Japanese press picked up in November 1973 a strange phenomenon. Thousands of families stormed supermarkets and wiped out toilet paper stocks as a rumor spread through every city about impending supply problems. The news spread like wildfire and, through the agencies, it reached Wisconsin (USA) in just a few days. Republican Congressman Harold V. Froehlich immediately feared the effects of a possible crisis in the paper sector in his jurisdiction, where this industry had enormous weight. He promptly published a press release in which he cautiously warned that a toilet paper shortage was “no laughing matter.”

None of the well-intentioned congressman’s precautions were taken seriously. As explained in an extensive report by New York Times of that time, all the conditionals and nuances of his statement disappeared and he soon ended up being the main dish of the country’s comedy programs. On December 19, comedian Johnny Carson said in prime time, “Have you heard the latest? I’m not kidding. I saw it in the newspaper. There is a shortage of toilet paper. The next day, millions of Americans packed stores and supermarkets in search of that product.

Those chapters of compulsive purchases of toilet paper seem like an anecdote, if it were not for the fact that they have been repeated periodically — in Japan, in 2011 and in Taiwan, in 2018 — and became the symbol of the nervousness that the Great Confinement of 2020 represented Again, Tokyo was the spearhead. In February of that year, the authorities had to go out to reassure a restless population about the possibility of shortages due to an alleged closure of China’s ports. But a few weeks later, the craving of consumers would empty the shelves of supermarkets in New York, Brussels or Barcelona, ​​showing that it was not a local phenomenon. In half the world, the large distributors even had to restrict purchases per customer.

Marga observed on Thursday night in a supermarket on San Bernardo Street in Madrid a sign placed on the sunflower oil shelf indicating that, at most, each customer could take five liters. The cause is the danger that the war in Ukraine, the main producer, could wipe out stocks. The shelf is half empty, but he has no intention of taking any bottles. “I’m not going to buy, no. I’m more concerned about that,” she says pointing to the aisles of milk deserts. In recent days, supermarkets have suffered from a lack of some products such as sunflower oil, milk, corn, pasta and even, again, toilet paper. According to the consulting firm NielsenIQ, between March 7 and 13, purchases soared 23%. In particular, those of oil, which grew by 289%. There is a logical part: the carriers’ strike has prevented normal production and distribution. There is another that is not: the inflationary escalation and the war in Ukraine have led citizens to return to mass stockpiling of products.

Compulsive shopping is a widely studied phenomenon. José Luis Nueno, holder of the Intent HQ Chair of Changes in Consumer Behavior at IESE, explains that these “unusually high” acquisitions of a good occur in three circumstances. “We see it when consumers want to anticipate a big price spike or shortage, when unreasonable stockpiling is leading to speculation, or when a coveted product like a new iPhone or a new Harry Potter is launched. ”, he maintains.

A review of the images that were produced in the midst of a pandemic is enough to verify that many consumers did not know how to explain why they left the supermarket loaded with rolls of toilet paper. However, Nueno remembers that it is the most organized buyers who set the spiral in motion. Then comes the imitation or the herd effect. The fear of being left out – known as FOMO, an acronym for fear of missing out—. And even panic. And that behavior of the most organized extends to those who are less. “The survival instinct acts. Our brain is designed to respond quickly in a society with few resources. We see the scarcity and think: I have to take it or I’m left out. And it is also a pure social validation: if everyone does it, I must do it too”, indicates Albert Vinyals, professor of Consumer Psychology at the University of Barcelona.

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After the independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017, thousands of clients from the community called their bank, thinking that their money was in danger. Some entities moved their headquarters outside the autonomy and were used to report that the client’s money was not physically in the office. Even so, many were only relieved when an account was opened for them in another office. That episode stayed there, but massive financial panic has sometimes led to disaster. It happened in Andorra with the old BPA, when the fact of being singled out by the United States for alleged money laundering led to money withdrawals and the imposition of a sort of playpen (albeit generous) to prevent capital flight. “It’s what we call self-fulfilling expectations,” says Esade Behavioral Economics professor Pedro Rey.

Studies indicate that, in the face of a crisis perceived as a threat, citizens run to protect their pockets and their basic needs. “We observe these behaviors during major crises or disasters, which may mean that certain essential products such as milk or oil experience a shortage. Whether it’s true or not, sometimes that doesn’t matter, because the cost of acquiring and stocking up on them is perceived to be lower than running out of them and not having enough if there is eventually a shortage,” says Andy Yap, a professor at the School of Singapore INSEAD business and organizational behavior psychology expert.

The role of social networks

There is, therefore, a need to act, no matter how much the crisis exceeds the capacity of the individual. “Not all of us do it, but there is a bias of some people who want to feel in control of a situation that is out of their control. And the consumption of basic products that take up space ends up satiating that need for security”, says Pedro Rey, from Esade. Yap agrees: “Crises and disasters threaten people’s sense of control, which is a fundamental psychological need. Our research has found that more functional products like oil or toilet paper are purchased when feeling a loss of control. Its acquisition helps restore that sense of control.”

Social networks, WhatsApp groups or images on television enhance this compulsive purchase. Also marketing. The depopulated vial leaves on wet paper the calls not to stockpile employers, consumer associations and even governments, such as the Basque. “We have more than enough merchandise,” said Juan Roig, president of Mercadona. But the image of the empty shelf is very powerful and, as Albert Vinyals recalls, immediately leads to the effect “they take it out of my hands”.

As irrational as the behavior may be, consumers now know what scarcity is. “They no longer have to go back to the experience of their grandparents,” adds Rey. They suffered when, at the beginning of the pandemic, for example, masks or respirators were missing. It is summed up by Eiko Maruko, a history professor at Williams College, who in 2021 re-examined the case of Japan during the first oil crisis. “The fear of toilet paper was not a sudden burst of crazed consumption by women acting irrationally. Quite the contrary: it was another protection against the loss of the comfort, security, progress, and optimism central to the experience and ideal of the middle class, which had never felt so fragile as it did in the early 1970s. ″, she ponders.

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