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Why Are We Panic Buying During the Coronavirus Pandemic?

To alleviate fear and anxiety, to mimic others, and to react to future scarcity.

I think that I may take a stroll,

And buy myself a toilet roll.

At home it will be safely stowed,

With the other pallet-load.

Pam Ayres

Panic buying is common during disasters like the coronavirus pandemic. Before a winter storm, for example, somewhat irrationally, consumers tend to strip grocery store shelves bare of the so-called holy trinity of bread, milk, and eggs. In contrast, when a hurricane is about to hit, indulgences such as liquor and Pop-Tarts, and bottled water are popular purchases. After an earthquake, especially a severe one, pretty much everything in the grocery store is fair game for panic shoppers. What's more, panic buying of any item can even break out without any reason at all, simply based on rumor.

As I've written on this blog, panic buying does not make for smart shopping decisions. In fact, it can have severe negative ramifications on consumers’ personal finances. This begs the questions: Why do consumers panic buy? And why are we panic buying during the coronavirus pandemic?

In this post, I want to consider the psychological reasons for why we are panic buying during the coronavirus pandemic, as a way to answer the broader question of why consumers panic buy during a disaster.

1. To secure essentials for the immediate future.

"I just don’t know how I’m supposed to stay healthy." — British nurse, Dawn Bilbrough

The principal, most obvious reason for panic buying is the most practical one. To most of us, the threat from the coronavirus pandemic is significant and open-ended (i.e., the disruption could go on for months). This leads to concerns about whether we'll have enough food and necessities to sustain us if we are quarantined for a lengthy period. Combine that with having to forgo eating out in restaurants due to closures and low stores of some necessities in our homes, buying groceries to fill up our pantries, refrigerators, and bathroom cabinets is the only reasonable course of action. Our concerns about the threat's severity and duration don't have to be either real or accurate. They are simply perceptions we generate ourselves or through our social interactions. The recent panic buying of toilet paper provides a good example of this.

2. To alleviate fear and anxiety, and to exert control over at least one aspect of our lives.

"I return to psychological vertigo, trying to tamp down a mixture of anxiety, terror, and disorientation so profound that I can barely remember what I'm supposed to be doing from one minute to the next." — Amanda Hull

The period surrounding a disaster is one of fear and anxiety. (Psychologists provide compelling analyses of the overlaps and distinctions between fear and anxiety, but that is a topic for another day.) Our extreme anxiety about the coronavirus outbreak is not just about fear of the physical harm it poses to us and our loved ones, but also about the uncertainty of financial hardship and even the risk of going without basic things to which we are accustomed.

Compras de Panico/ Huitzil/ Flickr/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Compras de Panico/ Huitzil/ Flickr/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

Combine this dread with the disruption of our normal social lives and daily routines, a lengthy period of self-isolation, and an uncertain future. Together, it's a recipe for experiencing a complete lack of control. Shopping for groceries, even if it means braving long lines and encountering empty shelves, is a tangible way to do something to exert a semblance of control over our day-to-day lives. It's not surprising, then, that people who typically go to the grocery store once or twice a month suddenly line up at 7 a.m. several times a week, risking close contact with potentially infected people and increasing the risk of exposure to the virus.

3. In response to other people's panic buying.

"Now that everyone else has panicked, well … we have to panic." — Kyle Johnson, 24

Panic buying is much like a stock market sell-off or a stampede in a dense crowd in the sense that our actions during a panic buying episode are impelled by observing other people and mimicking them. Our main goal is not to get left out or get left behind others. Economists call this "herding behavior," and it often leads to bad decisions and wasteful outcomes all around. When we see someone we know (or even a complete stranger) buying up jumbo packs of toilet paper or cases of bottled water, we are motivated to behave in the same way. Because if we don't, very soon, there won't be any toilet paper or bottled water left for us. And then where will we be? The same thing applies to hand sanitizers, staples like rice and beans, and pretty much everything else. This reason for panic buying is starkly different from the rationale, "I will need these things and will use them soon." Instead, it is "I better buy this now because everyone else is buying. If I don't buy now, I won't be able to get it tomorrow." This increases our potential to over-buy and hoard, and the likelihood that the panic-bought items will eventually be wasted.

4. As a behavioral response to future (perceived) scarcity.

"Someone told me I was one of the few shops to still have protective masks." —Giovanni Casiraghi

Empty Display/ Mick Haupt/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Source: Empty Display/ Mick Haupt/ Unsplash/ Licensed Under CC BY 2.0

One of the big unknowns is the longer-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on global supply chains and the continued availability of products that are made in adversely affected regions. Distinct from the other reasons above, perceptions of impending scarcity provide a powerful motive to buy up the available items now, while they are still on store shelves. Psychological research shows that the same object is perceived as more valuable if it is also scarce. A $10 bottle of French table wine might seem like a normal purchase to many of us. However, if it's the last lot you will be able to purchase at the store for the foreseeable future, it suddenly seems precious and worth hoarding. This logic applies to virtually every item in the store, whether the perception of the item's scarcity is real or imaginary.

(This is why during such times, grocery stores take great pains to ensure all their shelves are amply stocked as quickly as possible, even if it means cutting store hours or imposing purchase restrictions on certain items. Their goal is to break down the consumers' perception that goods in the store have a limited supply.)

The panic buying phenomenon is a complex and pernicious consumer behavior, fueled by a set of multiple and non-overlapping motivations and psychological processes. Once it sets in, it is difficult to break the vicious cycle of irrational excessive purchasing. This is because panic buying is supported by far too many individual perceptions and interpretations of signals, whether they are true and significant or not.