In simple terms, demand for toilet paper increased and supply was unable to scale up.
- The supply chain for toilet paper is unable to rapidly scale up production to the levels required to meet the large increase in demand.
- Most supermarkets (at least where I live) seem to be unwilling to increase the prices of toilet paper in order for supply and demand to equalise. Presumably, if the price of toilet paper in supermarkets was increased by 4 or 5 times (or perhaps more), we would eventually reach a point where toilet paper would be in stock. However, supermarkets would be accused of price gouging in a crisis, which would be bad for publicity (as well as people unable to afford toilet paper).
So why did demand increase?
- Toilet paper is not perishable. Thus, people can buy huge amounts of toilet paper and they will eventually be able to use it.
- There are few substitutes for toilet paper. There are items like tissues, paper towels, wet wipes, and bidets, but these are not great substitutes for most people, and in some cases, these are out of stock also. In contrast, while food is essential, people are able to eat a wide range of different foods.
- Toilet paper is also an essential item. For most people the perceived cost of being without toilet paper is quite high. Thus, if people perceive there is a chance that they could run out, this is more likely to trigger an increase in their demand (to stock up).
- As noted below, more people are using toilet paper at home rather than at outside the home (e.g., work, school, etc.).
Presumably, the increase in demand is triggered by the sum of the knowledge and motives of the many economic actors in a society.
- Some people might be rationally thinking that it would be wise to stock up on toilet paper if they might be going into lockdown soon.
- A desire to stockpile will further increase when people see that if they don't stockpile, they are more likely to run out of toilet paper. Presumably, international media and social media would help ignite the stock-piling and then the empty shelves and the associated media coverage further increase demand. So, shortages create even more shortages.
- I'm not really clear on whether third parties are stockpiling toilet paper to sell at inflated prices. But it seems like normal rational behaviour (perhaps selfish when taken to extremes) can explain what is going on without the need for reference to such third party actors.
So, I'm inclined to think that normal rational economic behaviour combined with failures in the supply chain and an unwillingness to raise prices in response is the main explanation.