Marcia Mogelonsky
Marcia Mogelonsky, Ph. D. is the Director of Insight, Food & Drink, at Mintel. Her expertise focuses on consumer behavior across a range of categories.

There has been a lot of musing about the reason behind the great toilet paper rush of 2020, with theories pointing to a lack of household preparedness and the fear of “being caught with your pants down” (metaphorically and physically) as the unseen barbarian, COVID-19, masses at the gate.

And perhaps the word “barbarian” is the best way to understand the virus and its effect on consumers. Since the virus made news in China in January, and bore down on the US in early February, consumers stockpiled enough toilet paper to last a lifetime, used it as a barter chip, fought over it in superstores, and created an endless number of memes and Etsy-store items celebrating the mundane and ubiquitous paper product.

“Hey… got some toilet paper?”

Stocking up on toilet paper is a hallmark of the COVID-19 buying panic. It’s not that we were not buying toilet paper in the pre-COVID era, it’s that the number of purchasers and the amount that they spend on their purchase of toilet paper have both increased. According to IRI, there was a 92% increase in dollar sales of toilet paper through its tracked channels in late March compared to the same data one year ago.

Civilization = indoor plumbing

Toilet paper represents our civilization. It is a symbol of success and the aspirational nature of consumers: the very things that the COVID-19 virus has eroded. Toilet paper is a hallmarks of the post-war, Baby Boom era, marking a major transition in the American spirit, from pre-war poverty to post-war success.

In 1920, only 1%, of American homes had electricity and indoor plumbing, by 1940, that figure was just under 50% according to the US Census Bureau.

By 2010, however, over 99% of US single-family homes had indoor plumbing: in sixty years, the country had moved from outhouses to bathrooms, and not just one bathroom per house, but an average of two. By 2018, only 4% of homes had 1.5 bathrooms or less, while 36% had three or more.

From mid-century modern to McMansions

The proliferation of indoor bathrooms and the enthusiastic housing boom of the Baby Boom
years continued through the McMansions of the 1980 and into the 2000s. So too did the up-marketing of toilet paper, which matched the exuberant décor of mid-century modern designed bathrooms with coordinating colors and prints.

Even the recession and the housing bust of the first decade of the 21st century did not stop the growth of multi-bathroom homes. While the number of single-family housing starts may have declined in the 2000s, the percent of private housing starts with multiple bathrooms continued
to grow.

And as bathroom styles changed, to ultramodern chrome and spa-inspired fixtures, toilet paper kept up with ultra-plush, textured, pure white products.

A universal need

Which brings us back to toilet paper, sales of which reached $9,962 million in the US in 2019. Just as multiple indoor toilets represent an aspirational goal, so too does toilet paper in its many forms. According to Mintel research on paper products, more than nine in 10 consumers report having used toilet paper in the past three months, and two in five consumers agree that it is worth paying more for high-quality toilet paper products.

What we think

The potential to be without toilet paper points to a loss of control – and COVID-19 has certainly
demonstrated its ability to rob us of control of our health and our livelihood. But the coronavirus also threatens or way of life and takes us away from our communities and our society. The country worked hard to move from the Depression of the 1930s and WW II to a “new civilization” that followed, and in its own way, toilet paper is a part of that civilization.