Shoppers Say They're Panic-Buying Toilet Paper Just Because Everyone Else Is
Trolleys packed full of toilet paper, spray cleaner and long-life milk are flying out of supermarkets -- but people say they're only in a frenzy because everyone else is, not because they're scared of the coronavirus.
Supermarket shelves across the country have been laid bare at times in recent days, as shoppers buy out entire stocks of tissues, hand sanitiser, cleaning products, canned food and packaged goods.
But it's been the unexpected toilet paper pandemonium which has shocked many, with entire aisles cleared out.
"I think people are worried about other people panic-buying, rather than the virus itself," Jordan told 10 daily outside a Coles supermarket in inner-Sydney. He had just emerged from the shop with his friend, Sarah, where they'd both bought three large 12-packs of toilet paper.
"Some people are getting five at a time," Sarah added.
Similar toilet paper shortages have been reported in recent weeks in Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United States. Despite reminders from experts that panic-buying is "unhelpful", and that most Australian toilet paper is made here in the first place -- and would be little affected by global uncertainty -- shoppers are still buying up big.
Woolworths announced a four-pack toilet paper limit on Wednesday, but customers at the Coles supermarket we visited were piling trolleys high. Most were leaving with at least one large pack of toilet paper, but some were stocking up more.
One man filled the bottom layer of his trolley with boxes of spray cleaner, on top of which he piled eight packets of toilet paper.
Baby wipes, cleaning fluid, nappies, paper towels and tissues were hot-ticket items, as were long-life milk, bottled water and cans of soft drink.
"I thought 'if everyone's doing it, I'm doing it too'," Serena, pushing a trolley packed with paper towels and toilet rolls, said.
"It's too much, there's nothing going on... but I have kids at home, so I won't take the risk if everyone's buying it all."
"I don't want to get to the point where I've got none and then there's none to buy."
The toilet paper aisle in the Coles, as well as a nearby Aldi, lay uncharacteristically bare, only a few assorted packs of recycled home-brand products still on shelves. People looked on, mouths agape, as if stunned at the buying frenzy. Some took photos, while others just stared, bewildered.
"I don't know why everyone is panicking," an older woman told 10 daily, saying people "could always just use water instead".
A young woman shook her head, telling her friend, "It’s like people are preparing to s*it themselves every day for a month."
A Coles worker soon emerged, carting a huge pallet of toilet rolls piled three metres high, and began bundling it onto shelves. He told one shopper the demand was "crazy" and reassured her the supermarket had more pallet-loads in its stock room.
Professor Gary Mortimer, a retail expert in the business school at the Queensland University of Technology, described the buying frenzy -- seen across the nation -- as a "herd mentality".
"Consumers are like sheep sometimes. Herding is exacerbated in periods of uncertainty, so when we're unsure of something, we follow safety in numbers and do what everyone else is," he told 10 daily.
"Rationally we know most toilet paper sold here is produced here, so we won't run out domestically, but when people are unsure, we give up rational decision-making."
Mortimer said media reporting and social media footage of empty shelves created a cycle which "feeds on itself" -- photos of bare supermarkets encourage people to buy up, causing more shortages.
"We behave like everyone else, and that can create irrational consumption," he said.
Sydney shopper Sam, holding three toilet paper packs, agreed.
"The media is making it worse. I'd hate to see how people would act if it was a real pandemic," he told 10 daily.
Labor politician Dr Andrew Leigh said "we need to go about our daily lives" and there was "no cause for panic or alarm." NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has also urged calm.
Associate professor Adam Kamradt-Scott, an expert in health security at the University of Sydney, told 10 daily on Tuesday basic hand-washing and personal hygiene were the most important steps to battle the coronavirus risk. He urged the public to remain calm, calling such panic-buying "unhelpful and unproductive".
But while most people at the Sydney supermarkets seemed to agree, it didn't stop them going home with an extra few toilet rolls under their arms.
"I felt guilty buying two packs, but I saw a lady with four, so I decided two was OK," shopper Anne told 10 daily.
"People are panicking. When you see a shelf bare that's never been bare before, if you weren't panicking when you came in, then you would be after. Who wants to run out of toilet paper?"