From toilet paper to alcohol to hair dye: How COVID-19 panic buying has progressed

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Dawson White
·4 min read
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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to evolve, so does what people are purchasing.

During his Friday appearance on the “Today” show, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon was asked about the pulse of America and what items customers are purchasing that surprise him.

The answer? Hair dye.

“You can definitely see that as people have stayed home, their focus shifted,” McMillon said. “Lately we’ve seen more grooming products, people are starting to need a haircut, so you start to see more beard trimmers and hair color and things like that. It’s interesting to watch the dynamic play out.”

Nielsen data show that hair clipper sales have increased 166% percent from the same period last year, CNN reported, and hair dye sales have risen 23%.

Do-it-yourself hair cutting and coloring tutorials are popping up all over social media with celebrity stylists such as Jen Atkin and Kristin Ess offering their best advice for at-home grooming.

But just over a month ago, it was toilet paper and hand sanitizer sending people frantically to the shelves. Here’s how purchasing during the pandemic has evolved since the onset of the coronavirus.


Panic buying in the U.S. began in February with surgical and N95 face masks.

It got so bad that U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams posted on Twitter urging the American people to stop buying masks because “they’re NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus,” adding that when the public purchases masks, it takes them out of the hands of health care workers.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since reversed its guidance, now urging Americans to wear non-surgical cloth face masks when in public. Medical masks should be reserved for hospital workers.

N95 masks became popular after health agencies explained they were effective at filtering out particles in the air compared to surgical masks, McClatchy News reported.

Price gouging quickly became an issue, with a 10 pack of N95 masks costing nearly $200 on Amazon, up from $18.20 in mid-January. The online retailer quickly began shutting down accounts that sent prices skyrocketing.

Panic buying has evolved as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Panic buying has evolved as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

Toilet paper and sanitizing products

In early March people began panic purchasing toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectants in anticipation of self-quarantine, USA Today reported.

Costco, Target and Amazon had trouble keeping items in stock, including disinfectant wipes and all-purpose cleaners, according to the outlet. Other stores put limits on how many sanitizing products customers were allowed to purchase at once.

“Panic buying is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Karan Girotra, professor of operations at Cornell University, told the outlet. “If everyone thinks things are going to run out, they go and buy out things and they do run out.”

These items can still be difficult to come by.

On Friday, McMillon said Walmart is still having a tough time finding hand sanitizer for its associates, let alone for sale. He added that paper goods are still selling out quickly and that in five days, Walmart sold enough toilet paper for every American to have their own roll.


Mid-March saw an uptick in alcohol sales, with customers in cities such as New York and Boston rushing to grocery stores to stock up on wine and liquor, The New York Times reported.

Alcohol delivery service Drizly saw sales increases of 300 to 500% in Seattle, Chicago and Boston compared to January, the outlet reported.

Eric Goldstein, owner of Park Avenue Liquor Shop in New York City, told the Times he often saw people purchasing one or two cases of wine at a time, usually popping in on their way to work or when heading home.

Ham and baking goods

As stay-at-home orders became more popular in late March, people began purchasing spiral ham and baking goods, CNN reported.

From March 22-28, baking yeast sales increased 457% compared to the same period in 2019, according to the outlet. Sales of spiral ham increased 413%.

Flour has also become progressively harder to find.

A marketing company in Florida found that sales of flour and baking mixes are up 102% nationwide, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

However, food firms say that panic buying is dying down as people get stocked up and adjust to life in isolation, according to Reuters.