Pandemic panic buying: Shelves again wiped clean of toilet paper

It’s a case of pandemic déjà vu for people trying to stock up on essentials like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. In many cases, shoppers are staring at empty shelves as customers quickly raid stores across the region ahead of pandemic-related restrictions. 

“If you were in any of our stores last night, or probably any retailer, it looks like there was a run on paper products, but we have plenty in the warehouses,” said Karl Schroeder, president of the Seattle division of Albertsons companies, which he says includes 220 stores in Washington state, Northern Idaho and Alaska.

Schroeder said they’ve been anticipating a surge in COVID-19 cases, and in turn, panic buying. 

“We’re stocked with weeks supply of paper in our warehouses, but that’s assuming people buy normal and don’t feel a need to stockpile again,” he said.

Rick Ragan in Issaquah said he didn’t get the need for hoarding, “but I understand that people have that sense of control that they’re looking for.”

Psychologists say that’s part of it, especially for people who are particularly anxious about the pandemic, but it’s not the only reason people are rushing to clean out stores. 

“People are buying because of the behavior of their fellow shoppers, not because of their concern about a threat to the supply chain,” said Dr. Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia who wrote a book on “The Psychology of Pandemics.”

“Here’s the thing,” Taylor said. “Research shows that an episode of panic buying lasts seven to 10 days, so if you want to get ahead of the crowd what you need to do is back off, hold off. If you can hold on for a few days, if you can hold on for a week or so, you can get to the store, the crowds will have gone, the shelves will have been restocked and you can get your toilet paper and cans of beans and so forth.”

The advice benefits stores rushing to restock.

“As long as folks just buy what they need for each shop, we’ll have enough for everybody and it gives us a chance to keep the supply chain plugged,” Schroeder said.

It’s also good news for customers who can stave off buying right away. 

“We don’t have endless supplies of toilet paper and tissue and stuff like that, but I would say the Ragan household is very full,” Ragan said.