Dave Birchall
Share Worthy

What the great toilet paper crisis of 2020 teaches us about consumer psychology

The world has gone mad! 

It’s been declared on social media several times so it must be true.

It’s hard to escape media reports and social posts about the panic buying that has taken hold in Australia with particular emphasis on toilet paper. Aussie toilet paper manufacturers like Kleenex have had to work around the clock to meet demand, knowing that demand is actually about to slow down given that our shelves at home are full of the stuff!

If by some miracle, you somehow managed to survive the great toilet paper crisis then you (like me) may have been left scratching your head trying to make sense of it all.

Nothing about this is rational

What is so deeply puzzling to many of us is the extent to which none of this adds up. The product itself offers no protection from corona virus, nor is it linked to the symptoms of the disease, which makes this seem completely bonkers.

Cognitive Bias

Our brain, as many of tend to think of it can actually be thought of as two separate systems,(perhaps more if we want to get very neurosciencie about it). Deep within that spongie mass we have our primal brain, responsible for many of our instinctive behaviours around which our second thinking system of more rational processing has evolved. It’s an imperfect situation. Sometimes our instinctive brain can run wild without your rational really being aware.

I think many us can recall a time when you have driven somewhere on autopilot only to realise some time later you have been operating that way.

Despite the various advancements of human-kind, much of our behaviour hails from our 'reptilian brain'. We can all fall victim to cognitive biases and logical fallacies if we allow ourselves. The great toilet paper crisis is a shining example of herding or group think. The behaviour exists outside of the realms of reason and now we know why.

One shining example in relation to the toilet paper crisis is group think. Group think is what happens when we cease thinking as individuals and follow the crowd. We could argue that it’s a desire for social acceptance that’s is an underlying factor, but I also believe group think stems from a primal instinct to stay with the herd and ‘safety in numbers’ mentality.

Why toilet paper?

So if herding mentality and group think explains the volume of the uptake of toilet paper why was toilet paper the product in demand in the first place. Why not long life milk or some other more practical product. Well, for starters we have to remember we are dealing with the irrational art of the brain and for that reasons we can throw any kind of logic out of the equation, but then I think Professor Grey is onto something with this quote.

"What you've got to remember is that when 50 packs of toilet paper rolls disappear off shelves, you really notice it because they take up so much room," says Prof Deborah Grey from Griffith University.

Are we so conditioned to having what we need on our supermarket shelves and online that we seem particularly triggered by the notion of scarcity?

Putting it to use.

According to Dan Ariely we are ‘predictably irrational’. Behavioural economics embraces the notion that we are less rational that we would otherwise like to admit. Our cognitive biases (thinking errors) can often be overcome with an awareness of the pitfalls and traps we can fall into.

Many of us already leverage social proof and scarcity principles in sales campaigns and design, but it’s important to recognise that many of the levers we pull to persuade the customer, happen in a very subliminal way.

About the Author Dave Birchall

Dave Birchall is a Sydney digital marketing and sales expert with a love for conversion rate optimisation, eCommerce and online growth. He is accredited in Google Analytics, Tag Manager and Adwords among other things. He has owned and run large and small ecommerce businesses in Australia, New Zealand, the US, UK and China.

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