As companies scrambled to meet the demand -- some, like Cottonelle, even encouraging people to “share a square” -- many people were left wondering, “Why toilet paper, of all products?”
“If you have ever been in the bathroom only to find out that the toilet paper roll is empty and, as loud as you yell, there’s nobody that is going to bring you any more, then you know that there was nothing irrational about people wanting to make sure that they had a stock of toilet paper,” said economist Austan Goolsbee, an ABC News consultant.
During the week of March 16, toilet paper sales rose 845% compared to the month prior, according to NCSolutions, a company that aggregates retail purchase data. During that week, toilet paper went from being a 20th to 30th best-seller in grocery and drug stores to the top one.
In Box Elder, Utah, a town of just over 55,000 people, residents were watching the panic buying closely. The town is home to one of Charmin-maker Procter & Gamble’s factories.
When ABC News correspondent Clayton Sandell visited the plant in May, human resources director Tommy Montoya showed how the company had implemented safety measures to allow these front-line workers to continue producing toilet paper for millions of customers across the country 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Montoya says that every day, employees entering the building must wear masks and get their temperatures scanned. Employees are also required to wear specific personal protective gear inside the factory, including a bump cap, safety goggles and heavy-duty shoes.
“Every day, you do it, but the breath of fresh air at the end of the day reminds you just how not normal it is,” Montoya said of using the masks.
“It’s an involved process getting in the building, but I’d say that process makes me feel safe at work,” said Kay Debow, a technician who’s worked at Procter & Gamble for 20 years. “I feel like we’re looking out for each other. We’re sanitizing, we’re distancing. So that, in itself, is a good thing. It’s changed the dynamics a little bit on the team. We wear a headset. Wearing a mask for 12 hours is uncomfortable, so we aren’t talking much.”
The process to make toilet paper involves turning dry paper pulp into a paper slur with water before putting the mixture into machines that press the pulp slur into giant so-called “parent rolls” of paper, which are then turned into paper towels and toilet paper, Montoya said.
Montoya said that each part of the plant has different zones so that “if someone gets sick, we can identify and isolate the zone.”
With precautions in place, the plant has been running nonstop, according to electrical planner Jared Kent, who said that while he doesn’t know exactly how much they produce, it’s “a lot.”
And yet, despite fierce competition among toilet paper-making companies, Procter & Gamble told ABC News that it had slowed down its machines during the visit to avoid exposing its actual production pace.
Kent said that never in his “wildest dreams” would he have thought people would be out of toilet paper during a pandemic.
“I think it’s crazy -- great for us -- but never would I have thought that,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time that the public has been prompted to panic buy toilet paper. In 1973, legendary “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson joked during his show that there were shortages of toilet paper.
“Everybody went out to the store and my mom started having a rule that she will always have two weeks of toilet paper stored in the pantry, no matter what,” said Goolsbee,” because you never knew what would happen.”
Goolsbee says the urge to panic buy comes from the psychology of scarcity, which makes more people want to buy a product at a faster rate than it can be supplied.
“When you think you’re going to be locked in your house for a long time, there are certain things you want. … Whatever you might need in an emergency … those are absolutely the things that there’s a massive ramp up of demand,” Goolsbee said.
Although the supply of toilet paper has stabilized, Goolsbee said that other items may cause the same sort of panic buying -- especially as rates of the coronavirus, COVID-19, continue to rise again in the U.S.
“If the supply chain can’t deal with that, you will see the same things happen again and again,” he said, “whether it’s on medicines, whether it’s on staple paper goods, whether it’s on a whole bunch of things that … are storable and that people think they’re going to need or they’re anticipating there’s going to be a high demand for.”