Twenty years from now, as we reflect on the coronavirus outbreak and its effects on our nation, we won’t just remember social distancing, mask shortages, and economic uncertainty. We’ll also recall the extreme panic buying that wiped out grocery stores.
From hand sanitizer and toilet paper to canned foods and cleaning supplies, consumers began stockpiling products as soon as they realized the potential threat of COVID-19. This has led to widespread shortages of items most consumers once took for granted. What exactly is driving this panic buying behavior, and when will it stop?
Defining Panic Shopping
Panic shopping, also referred to as panic buying, occurs when consumers are concerned that certain products won’t be available, or will become too expensive, in the near future. Consumers begin panic shopping, even if they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing, in order to take control of an uncertain situation and do what’s in their power to protect themselves and their loved ones.
According to New York City-based psychotherapist Lisa Brateman, “I think a big part of it is feeling they have no control over this, there are so many unknowns, but what they can control is going to the store and buying all the things they think they need or are going to need.”
Making Informed Decisions in the Age of Coronavirus
Many Americans are familiar with panic shopping before major weather events like blizzards and hurricanes, but those events have a more defined ending point. Shoppers know that they only need a week’s supply of water, food, and batteries to safely survive a snowstorm.
The coronavirus, on the other hand, has no end date. Customers find themselves shopping for an emergency that could last more than a month with unknown economic ramifications, leading them to hoard anything potentially important or essential.
According to supply chain experts and grocery store owners, the U.S has an abundant supply of basic groceries. The only threat to supply is the hoarding behavior itself. “If people would just stop panic hoarding, we’ll have plenty for all,” explains Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center.
Experts urge consumers to resist the temptation to believe news coverage that stokes the fire of panic buying. Sensationalist headlines may generate more attention, but they aren’t necessarily the information that consumers need during uncertain times such as the coronavirus pandemic. As Sawyer explains, “the endless panning of empty grocery shelves” is a common tactic used by media outlets to make food shortages appear more common than they actually are.
Store Responses to Panic Shopping
Grocery stores have responded to panic shopping behavior by implementing limits on the most sought-after items. To ensure that all shoppers have the opportunity to purchase essential and high-demand items, most stores now ration hand sanitizer, toilet paper, tissues, and bleach.
Publix, for example, now posts signs on shelves that read, “Due to unusually high demand and supply shortages, quantity limits per household apply on certain products. Not all items are available.”
Walmart also released a statement: “We continue to monitor the development of the coronavirus situation globally, and are closely following official recommendations while working with our suppliers to understand and mitigate any supply chain disruptions. Providing customers with the products they want and need remains our focus.”