Why – at a time of uncertainty – are people bulk buying, of all things, toilet paper?

Carole, who is regularly on the check-out when I do our weekly shop, told me she’d had a conversation with a customer who is a doctor.  He commented there was no logical justification for bulk buying loo roll.  So, what’s it all about?

Opinions vary.  Retail pundits say that loo rolls are big, so people notice when they start to disappear from the shelves and react accordingly.  I think there’s something more profound going on here.

At a time of crisis, we hang on tightly to any certainty we have.  We stock up to make ourselves feel safer.  We fear a possible loss of dignity in the event of attack by an unknown – and in this case invisible – assailant.

5 years ago, my last remaining aunt was terminally ill and in hospital in North Wales.  My mum – at that point nearly 90 herself – was desperate to see her and we decided to go together.  I liaised with the hospital and agreed a day for our visit.  We booked rooms at a lovely B&B we know.  It was late February and the weather was terrible.  We got up early, got ourselves and our luggage into my car and were both in the car and about to set off, when my mobile rang.  It was a nurse on my aunt’s ward, saying that my aunt had specifically asked us not to visit.  I explained that we were literally about to leave.  The nurse repeated the request.  The call ended and I said to my mum that I thought we had to respect the request.  I saw no point in driving over 200 miles in the rain to visit someone who had expressly asked that we do not come.

My mum was devastated.  As a former nurse, she knew that she would not see her sister alive again, and she was right.  My aunt – who was always slight anyway – had lost a lot of weight and was not eating.  She was quite a vain lady and did not want to be seen looking gaunt and terrible.  She died alone – and that was her choice.

My point here is that people hang on to their dignity and their self-respect to the bitter end.  I reckon the loo roll panic reflects a deep-seated anxiety that dignity may be at risk – albeit in a prosaic way.

I guess there is a message here for HR practitioners and others.  When dealing with people under pressure or in difficult circumstances, even at times when we feel it may not be deserved, we should always respect someone’s dignity.

Anxiety waxes and wanes.  I saw loo roll the other day for the first time in 3 weeks.


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