The sort of items we are hoarding in the face of a pandemic differs from country to country – here’s what our first world fixation with bog roll actually means
There’s nothing like an impending doomsday scenario to bring out the crazies. It is tempting to peer back in history and scoff at the medieval plague victims who once responded to the Black Death by waving garlic around and whipping themselves, yet here we are, staring down the coronavirus, having full-on fights in the supermarket over loo roll.
It would be sort of understandable if we were dealing with a mass-outbreak of dysentery. I could even see the logic if one of the most common symptoms was a runny nose, but it’s not; you don’t need extra loo roll for a dry cough. It is one of the most insane staples I can think of to hoard, let alone brawl over.
Two years ago, Andrex CEO Thomas Falk was laying off staff and bemoaning a “challenging” trading environment – today he must be watching the profits roll in with bemused glee. Forget the advertising allure of a mischievous labrador puppy (the lowly carrot) and beat them instead with the prospect of a life without quilted toilet paper (what a stick).
So what is it about this particular household product? Why are some countries buying more of it than others? And what does it all mean? Let’s dive in…
Loo roll: the perfect product for an apocalypse
There are a fairly straightforward set of attributes that makes bulk-buying this item logical, on a psychological level at least: the packets are big and cheap, but light and easy to carry. “The bigger they are, the more important we think they are,” Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos: expert in consumer and behavioural science at the University College London told Sky. “If we had an international symbol for panic it would be a traffic warning sign with a toilet paper roll in the middle.”
We’re also prone to watching what other people around us are buying, often under the assumption that they might know better, and it’s not easy to miss a trolley stacked with loo roll. You only need a handful of enthusiasts pushing around towers of the stuff for the rest to follow. It’s also more obvious when the entire bathroom paper aisle is emptier than say, the toothpaste shelf.
Psychologist Emma Kenny tells us: “Herd behaviour is part of the human condition and this means that because so many people here appear to value toilet rolls over food, that a permission base for bulk buying has blown up making even the most level-headed person ask themselves ‘will I have enough?’”
You will have enough, by the way – the UK exports more than it imports and we’re in no danger of running out.
A particularly British staple?
“Dignity is a key feature of the British mentality,” Kenny points out. “Whilst this has little to do with survival, it has everything to do with a sense of having a certain level of control over your environment.
“Shame is also a fundamental aspect of this, because the fear of failing your immediate needs is a mindset that weighs heavy for many. Whilst this doesn’t make sense, because firstly we are not going to run out of toilet paper, and secondly many countries don’t even use it meaning you can cope without it, the point is that we seek comfort to deal with emotional uncertainty, and currently, loo roll is a symbol of that.”
Australians appear to have it bad too; not surprisingly given the cultural ties we share. Reports of scuffles and even knives being drawn at checkout counters Down Under in recent times prompted Australia’s chief medical officer Dr Brendan Murphy to warn parliament this week: “We are trying to reassure people that removing all of the lavatory paper from the shelves of supermarkets probably isn’t a proportionate or sensible thing to do at this time.”
Likewise in the US, consumers are warring over the increasingly precious commodity. One police sheriff in California was last week forced to Tweet: “Please don’t call 911 because people are cutting in front of you in line at the store. It ties up valuable resources for real emergencies!”
Paper towels, too, are an American obsession. According to data published in the Atlantic, the US spends nearly as much on them each year, specifically for home use, as every other country in the world combined. The average American gets through three rolls of toilet paper a week – again more than in any other nation.
So not just a British, Australian or American home comfort, but more broadly a Western one…
A dirty habit?
Ironically, our use of dry paper over water (more specifically the bidet) is regarded by many other cultures to be borderline barbaric, and at best unhygienic. Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef summed it up thus when he announced at his first UK performance last year: “As Arabs we have to make sure we have three things when we pack: our passports, a bunch of cash, and a handheld portable bidet. I don’t get it: you guys are one of the most advanced countries in the world. But when it comes to the behind, you’re behind.”
Bidets – though originally a French invention – dominate the bathrooms of the Middle East, South America, particularly Argentina and Venezuela, and those across East Asia, especially South Korea and Japan.
Telegraph Travel’s Gavin Haines wrote fondly of the latter: “Anyone who has been to Japan will know that it takes toilets very seriously: in fact, when it comes to the business of getting rid of your business, Japan comfortably leads the way.
“Over-engineered and ruthlessly efficient, its toilets don’t just deal with waste, they remove any evidence that it ever existed. How they do this varies from toilet to toilet, but even in a standard loo you can expect to have your bottom jet-washed and blown dry. It’s also not uncommon to find toilets with heated seats, putting an end to a first world problem that still exists in Britain today: sitting on a cold toilet.”
It could be, in the current climate, that finally the likes of the US and the UK drop our prudish resistance to the posterior jet-wash. The sale of these devices in America has already been sky-rocketing.
Jose Ojavo, CEO of one such start-up, Tushy, told Wired: “[Our] sales over the past few weeks have grown from double to triple to more like 10 times what they were in weeks before word spread about toilet paper shortages. This could be the tipping point that finally gets Americans to adopt the bidet.”
Could the UK follow? I personally know of at least one friend who ordered one on Amazon this week…
What are other countries panic buying?
Guns in America (what could possibly go wrong?), with long lines forming outside weapons stores in the worst-hit states of California, New York and Washington. Pasta across the world, the first supermarket sweeps aptly tearing through Italy. Flour in the UK, according to Jane Shilling.
And in many parts of Asia (as well as the West, but to a lesser extent) – face masks. Even less useful than a mountain of extra loo roll in practical terms, you might argue, given the lack of credible evidence that they help prevent the spread of coronavirus in public, and concern they may even make matters worse.
But in the Far East, masks are more a matter of complex etiquette with a fabled history, and, as I examined last week in the below story, represent a far more honorable purchase when you understand why.
Writing for Refinery 29, Chinese journalist Connie Wang remarks: “I tell my American friends that I wear them because of the pollution, but the truth is that I wear face masks because it’s just the thing to do; a gesture toward good hygiene.” She adds: “In these countries, a mask is a symbol of reassurance. It represents communal trust, a pact that we’re all in this together.”
The face mask epidemic response traces its history back to the early 20th century in northern China, but more recently, sociologist Peter Baehr wrote of the 2002 SARS coronavirus outbreak: “Mask-wearing became the quickly improvised, if obligatory, social ritual; failing to don one was met with righteous indignation, a clear sign of ritual violation. The mask symbolized a rule of conduct – namely, an obligation to protect the wider community.”
OK, is there anything we should be panic-buying?
The general advice is no; purchasing far more than you need of anything fuels an unnecessary and unhelpful cycle. In response to rampant capitalist buying sprees, many retailers are resorting to near-socialist measures.
Aldi announced that it was limiting purchases on all products to four units maximum due to unprecedented demand, and the Sainsbury’s chief executive, Mike Coupe, emailed millions of customers urging them to stop stripping the shelves.
In the email to shoppers, he said more food and essential items had been ordered from manufacturers and added that if everyone shopped just for what they needed there would be enough for everyone.
“Please think before you buy and only buy what you and your family need,” he wrote. “And please help elderly and vulnerable friends, family and neighbours with their shopping if you can.”
With modern Britain starting to prepare for an unprecedented lockdown, it is understandable, of course, that we should be concerned over our food inventories, and certainly the country’s medical supplies. But when it comes to loo roll, perhaps it’s time we knocked this particular attachment down the priority list. It might be cheap and easy to lug home, but surely it’s not worth the weight of the mass-hysteria it carries.