Empty shelves where toilet paper is usually stocked photographed at Save-On-Foods in Whitehorse on March 8. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

Whitehorse wiped clean of toilet paper in light of COVID-19 concerns

Most stores had none in stock as of March 12, but expect to be resupplied on March 14

It’s the second coming of the Gold Rush, but instead of shiny yellow nuggets, it’s a more common, humble commodity that’s triggered a mad scramble to locations where it’s rumoured to be — toilet paper.

The Yukon has been hit by the same craze that’s swept other parts of the country and, indeed, the world, in the wake of authorities introducing increasingly rigorous measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, with toilet paper selling out in stores across Whitehorse.

The News contacted or visited six retailers in the city the afternoon of March 12; none had even a 12-pack available for sale.

“We’re just like everybody else in town and throughout most of B.C. and I believe everywhere else, we’re being hit on it every single day,” Save-On-Foods store manager Ryan Nesbitt said, who noticed a sudden increase in purchases about “a week and change” ago.

“We’re doing our best to make sure we can meet our customer demands but it’s just a challenge with … whatever mass-buying people are doing. It’s difficult to keep up with.”

Save-On’s next shipment should arrive on March 14, but Nesbitt said he didn’t expect it to last very long; recent shipments of toilet paper, which are “certainly enough to meet normal demand,” have sold out within six to eight hours.

An assistant manager at another chain store told the News his location was also wiped clean. There had been four pallets’ worth of toilet paper on the floor the night of March 11, he said, all of which had disappeared by the morning of the 12th. The amount of sales were “not normal,” he confirmed, before someone else grabbed the phone away and said no one at the store was authorized to speak to media.

While the rush for white, papery gold may seem odd, Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, said there are several layers to the “panic-buying” that may make it seem rational to those caught up in the phenomenon.

The COVID-19 threat, he explained, comes on the tail of several other “existential threats” the world’s weathered in recent months, including the Australian bush fires and the heightened international tensions after the U.S. killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani via drone strike in January.

“All of these things combined kind of create a feeling that we call in psychology learned helplessness — when some organism keeps having negative things happen to it and it doesn’t feel like it can control it … then either you do learned helplessness and that leads to anxiety and depression, or you struggle to find something where it feels like you have a sense of control,” Joordens said.

“That’s I think what’s going on with the panic-buying or at least the start of it. I think people are saying, ‘Okay, what can I do? Well, all I can really do is prepare, if it hits me, I’m going to be home for two weeks, and so I can prepare for those two weeks.’”

How did toilet paper become the supply of choice? Joordens blamed social media.

“Thanks to social media, if some bit of irrationality is irrational enough that it amazes us, that makes it go viral, so when people talk about the toilet paper thing, it’s that video from Australia of people going crazy for toilet paper,” he said.

People are drawn to “toilet humour,” he continued, and “when you see people going crazy over toilet paper, that’s simultaneously funny, perplexing and curious, and so suddenly, it goes all over the web.”

That, in turn, feeds into “observational learning,” and when people see a large group of other people doing something, that action begins to seem more rational.

“We start to think, ‘Well if everyone else is doing it, maybe I should be doing it,’ and we also get the feeling like it’s happening locally,” Joordens said.

The result is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Joordens said, in that people start buying more toilet paper, the shelves start looking a little emptier than usual, and, at some point, “the irrational becomes the rational.”

“People say, ‘Okay, I don’t think I would have needed this much toilet paper because of the COVID, but if everyone buys all the friggin’ toilet paper, I don’t want to be the person left with no toilet paper,’” Joordans said.

There’s also the weight of the consequences of either buying or not buying.

“If you decide to do it, there’s no real negative consequence to that other than the fact that you’re fronting some money now that you may not have fronted, but aside from that, you’re still going to use all that toilet paper sooner or later, so there’s nothing really negative that comes about from doing that,” Joordans said.

“But if you choose not to play … and these suckers buy all the toilet paper in the kingdom for the next three months and you’re the one left without toilet paper, well that’s kind of a crappy — sorry — that’s kind of a negative consequence.

“And so, you know, that’s why I say at some point … even though it’s a totally irrational genesis of all this, at some point, it’s like the most rational people will say, ‘Well yeah, I’m going to stock up a little bit just in case.’”

Up in Copper Ridge, Bigway owner Sam Jurovich said that while his store was out of stock at the moment, it wasn’t because there was a shortage with suppliers. The issue, he explained, was that he hadn’t expected the surge in demand, particularly when the larger stores had sold out.

“I had about a hundred cases on hand on Sunday and if I would have known about it a day earlier then I wouldn’t even have ran out at all,” he said, adding that he could have simply put in a larger order — suppliers in Edmonton have plenty of toilet paper on-hand.

“(It’s) very unusual. The sales were probably 20 times what they normally would be.”

Bigway, like most other stores in town, is expecting its next shipment on March 14, and this time, Jurovich said he’s prepared.

“I have so much inventory arriving on Saturday morning, I don’t anticipate any issues at all,” he said when asked if he would be implementing a customer limit like other stores. “You can buy whatever you need, there won’t be a supply problem.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com