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  • Writer's pictureDr. Steven Taylor

The Future of Panic Buying

There have been many episodes of panic buying during COVID-19. There will be more to come, involving a combination of in-store and online shopping. Panic buying is not some trivial quirk or oddity. It is socially disruptive, creates hardships for people who lack the financial resources for stockpiling food and other supplies, and creates the potential for COVID-19 superspreading events when frantic shoppers flock to stores.

Perceived scarcity, urgency, and necessity are the drivers of panic buying. People don’t rush out to buy bubble gum, paperclips, or toasters during pandemics. People purchase short-supply items they think they’ll need, particularly things they imagine will keep them safe.

In 2020, when communities were told to stock up on groceries in preparation for lockdown, there was panic buying of food, alcohol, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper. There was panic buying of health supplements, including bogus “immune-boosting” products. Also, depending on where you lived, there was panic buying of cannabis, guns, and ammo. In December 2020, there was panic buying of Christmas turkeys. Recently, there was panic buying of gasoline amid feared fuel shortages.

Panic buying is not new. During the 2003 SARS outbreak in China, there was panic buying of food, disinfectants, and medications, along with price hikes by vendors intent on profiting from the heightened demand. In the US during the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, there was panic buying of drug store supplies, including pills, ointments, balms, gargles, inhalers, and disinfectants. Quack cures were also the targets of panic buying. People weren’t stockpiling bubble gum but they were panic buying camphor gum, worn in a tiny bag around one’s neck as a “sure cure” for the flu. The bogus nostrum rapidly sold out.

Panic buying is unrelated to age, gender, and education level. Not surprisingly, panic buying is more likely to occur in people who are better off financially. Stockpiling can be expensive.

Episodes of panic buying are triggered by threats of lockdown or shortages. Over the course of COVID-19 we have become conditioned to respond with alarm if we hear of threatened lockdowns or shortages. We have learned to expect that other people will be panic buying and that we’ll miss out if we don’t follow suit.

Panic buying can give people a reassuring sense of control, albeit one that might be largely illusory. When faced with an impending threat, people feel the need to do something. Doing something gives you a sense of control, which can help curb anxiety even if that sense of control is illusory. Stockpiling toilet paper won’t keep you safe from infection, but at least you’ll feel that you’re “doing something.”

Panic buying occurs in bursts, with each typically lasting 7-10 days. People who are highly anxious are most likely to initiate an episode of panic buying. Such people tend to have a great deal of difficulty tolerating uncertainties in their lives. They tend to engage in “what if” thinking, which contributes to excessive worry (e.g., “What if I run out of food during lockdown?”). When threatened with shortages or lockdown, this “what if” pattern of thinking leads to an excessive purchasing of supplies, “just to be on the safe side.”

We are social creatures, identifying threats by observing others. If you see fellow shoppers panic buying or view dramatic viral videos of scuffles over supermarket items, then you’ll probably start to over-purchase. Your fellow shoppers, who observe you panic buying, will also over-purchase. Thus, the fear of scarcity creates real but short-term scarcity as supplies are temporarily depleted from stores. In this way panic buying snowballs either until stores impose quotas or the threatened shortage or lockdown has passed.

For some people, panic buying is a symptom of a broader mental health problem, such as a symptom of the COVID Stress Syndrome. This is an adjustment disorder characterized by intense, debilitating anxiety about COVID-19 as well as other symptoms. Fortunately, there are effective treatments for such disorders, offered by psychologists and other mental health professionals.

Not all panic buyers are panicking. Some are over-purchasing for darker reasons. Some people seek to exploit the anxieties of others by purchasing large quantities of sought-after items such as hand sanitizer to re-sell at inflated prices. Research shows that such people tend to have “dark” personality traits. That is, they tend to be self-focused, callous, manipulative, and lacking in empathy.

During outbreaks of panic buying, community leaders typically react with a mix of frustration and bewilderment. “Don’t panic!” exhortations from community leaders are likely to be counter-productive because the message implies that there is something to panic about. Similarly, the message “There is no shortage of hand sanitizer!” likely worsened panic buying of gasoline because it pairs “hand sanitizer” and “shortage” in the minds of many people. In social psychology, this is called the innuendo effect.

There will be more episodes of panic buying during COVID-19 and thereafter, such as during climate disasters. Future droughts or wildfires, for example, will likely trigger bouts of panic buying. Retailers will respond with a combination of quotas and price inflation, and people with dark personality traits will continue to look for ways of profiting from the panic of others.

Panic buying is a self-focused, socially disruptive activity where people think only of themselves and their loved ones. Public shaming for panic buying occurred during 2020. If bouts of panic buying persist, it would not be surprising to see more social pushback, such as a social media hashtag movement criticizing panic buyers. If such an anti-panic buying movement does arise, it would not be surprising to see the rise of counter-movement in which panic buyers claim their constitutional right to stockpile.

There are two ways to “beat the crowd” when it comes to panic buying. The first is to be always stocked up; that is, to become a survivalist. Indeed, some of today’s panic buyers will probably become survivalists.

Another, simpler way to beat the crowd is to wait 7-10 days for an episode of panic buying to subside, at which time the crowds will have gone and the shelves restocked.

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