Stock up, panic buy


Covid-19 is coming. Everyday it gets closer, the number of people affected is increasing and people are dying. It may not be as big a threat as other illnesses or other social ails yet it has captured the world’s attention. The UK government is doing its best to keep abreast of issues but it is impossible to tell yet if they are doing a good job. Who knows how effective any initiative will be in the face of a virus that we don’t yet know how it is actually spread?

It is both terrifying and fascinating. I am left wondering why it seems to have taken hold in certain areas yet not in others. Is this a question of under-reporting, over-zealousness or just that those seemingly unaffected areas are further behind the curve?

Then there is the issue of toilet rolls. The Internet is filled  with videos of people panic buying them, stocking their trolley as high as they can go and fighting over the last packet in the store. In equal numbers there are those claiming not to be part of this wave of anxiety and casting aspersions on the selfishness of others. Why did this wave of panic appear and why, rather than all the other important things, is our fixation on toilet rolls?

I don’t have the answer, nor do I have the bandwidth to carry out the research but I suspect it has been caused by a number of factors coming together. 

Firstly, people are right to take precautions. In the face of a potential pandemic it makes sense to ensure that you have enough food and essential supplies in your store cupboard just in case you have to self-isolate. You may be in lock-down for a couple of weeks.

Secondly, modern logistical networks work on very tight percentages. Stock in supermarkets can be held in terms of hours rather than days or weeks and rely upon regular just in time replenishment. Any increase in demand, however small but especially when unexpected, may impinge upon stock levels creating the impression that there are stock shortages rather than actual shortages. If something appears to be in short supply you may be tempted to buy more next time it comes  into stock, just in case.

Thirdly, the rapid spread of information and disinformation across the Internet can exacerbate any stock problems. A tweet saying that toilet roll is running out at store A can be followed by one that says something similar is happening in store B and so on. People pick up on these vibes and before you know it you have a meme.

A small and well-intentioned piece of advice could have resulted in the wave of panic that has spread just like the virus behind it. But why toilet rolls?

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