By: Yeeun Lee
People all around the world are panicking due to COVID-19 and this is evident simply by looking at our grocery stores. It started with people hoarding hand sanitizer. Then toilet paper. Now, it’s any food item people can get their hands on. Panic buying seems to be occurring all around the world, but more so in some countries than in others. This begs the question of why people are buying 4-5 times the amount of items they would usually buy? A behavioral scientist at a university in The Netherlands stated that there are four main reasons why people are bulk buying: survival mode, scarcity, herd behavior, and sense of control.
Survival mode refers to how in the past, when faced with a threatening situation, humans would enter a fight-or-flight response. Entering this state of fear puts humans under an attack or retreat mentality, which diminishes rational thinking. Today, COVID-19 and the uncertainty around the situation can be perceived as a threatening situation, which puts us in a “survival mode” and drives us to overbuy in order to be prepared for any situation. Scarcity refers to how people perceive items as more valuable when they become scarce. This is regardless of whether a person wants or needs the item.
Scarcity is seen by how people are buying ridiculous amounts of toilet paper, which makes the small amount of toilet paper left extremely valuable. Sense of control refers to how humans overcompensate when they lose control over something in their life. For instance, if external factors in our life change, we try to exert control over internal factors of our life. An example of an external factor now is how countries are closing borders and having stay at home mandates, which we cannot control. However, buying things is something we can control. Hence, we buy as a means to cope given the lack of control in some aspects of our life.
Herd behavior relates to how people follow what others are doing. Even if an individual does not usually bulk buy, if they see others around them bulk buying, they will too. As Andy Yap, a business professor stated, “even people who were queuing up in the supermarket line to buy toilet paper, they have no idea why they are buying toilet paper. They just see other people doing it and start doing it themselves because they are afraid they might lose out.” In addition, social media has facilitated access to global information today, which has played a major role in spreading fear and misinformation and encouraging people to panic/bulk buy. People see how grocery stores in other states and countries are being emptied out and so they assume the same will happen to their local grocery stores. So, they bulk buy.
However, there does seem to be a relationship between trauma and hoarding. There’s an expression that goes along the lines of “I learned to hold onto ‘stuff’ because my grandparents grew up in the Great Depression.” There have been only a few studies that look at how the Great Depression affected those who lived through it and their buying tendencies. However, there have been studies that look at trauma and acquiring tendencies. A study published in 2016 looked at the relationship between trauma and hoarding tendencies. Trauma includes general disasters, physical/sexual trauma, and crime-related trauma.
The study found that participants with greater acquiring tendencies had also experienced more traumatic events. The authors concluded that their results are consistent to what has been previously seen in other studies, “which found that acquisition and clutter were the two facets of hoarding that were robustly related to frequency of stressful life events.” Based on this information, it can be assumed that people who have previously lived through traumatic events will bulk/panic buy when faced with another stressful situation like COVID-19.
Moreover, while the quantities that people are buying is irrational, the types of items they are buying generally seem reasonable: hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, food, and face masks. However, many are wondering why people are bulk buying toilet paper. Besides the four reasons mentioned above, another reason is that while there are various options for food and thus people can replace certain items, there are no substitutes for toilet paper other than bidets, which are not common in America. Additionally, as social beings, humans would never want to be seen as unclean by others.
Besides toilet paper, people are also concerned that grocery stores will run out of food. However, as explained by an article in the BBC, “what a crisis like the novel coronavirus reveals about the food system, more so than its weak points, is actually its flexibility and strength under pressure.” The article starts by explaining that supply chains are designed to respond to natural disasters and seasonal spikes. A common misconception, strengthened by empty grocery shelf images, is that our supply chains are being “strained to their breaking points.”
This can quickly be debunked by understanding how storerooms work. Grocery stores usually carry around 30 days of inventory. They receive this inventory from local retail distribution centers that also hold around 30 days of inventory. These local retail distribution centers are supplied by regional distribution centers that also hold 30 days of inventory. Then come the production facilities that are next to the factories that make and package the food items, that contain an additional 30 days of inventory. That’s 120 days, or around 4 months of inventory, at a time.
The article goes on to talk about how usually, food items that come from these production facilities are divided equally between supermarkets (retail shops) and restaurants and bars (food services). However, given the current situation, many food service businesses have closed temporarily. Thus, only around 10% of food items are given to restaurants and bars and the remaining 90% is being directed to supermarkets. Another reason that there are empty shelves is because workers haven’t had time to fill those shelves yet given how busy supermarkets have become.
Certainly, there was an initial system-shock to grocery stores around the world due to panic buying. Yet, the system is still operating and food is available due to the way the system is designed. However, an issue could arise if people continue to bulk buy. Caitlin Welsh, the director for the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US. stated that “consumers can help reduce the collective fear of food shortages by shopping as they normally would.”
Nevertheless, there are some people who are bulk buying to take advantage of the situation. Some people have decided to take advantage of the situation by reselling items like hand sanitizers and masks. Thus, sites like eBay have recently banned listings for these health products such given that bottles of hand sanitizer were being resold for up to $400. Different countries have also responded to this situation. Japan has placed penalties for reselling masks and the U.S. Surgeon General has asked people to stop buying face masks so that healthcare workers can use them.
Furthermore, it seems that panic buying is occurring less in some countries. Amy Dalton, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, stated that collectivist societies are better at dealing with epidemics compared to individualistic societies. This is because communal societies generally trust each other and their governments more. For instance, at the beginning of the outbreak in Singapore, people were panic buying and grocery stores were running out of toilet paper. But the prime minister was quick to assure people that there is a “sufficient supply of basic goods,” and now the situation seems to have normalized.
Dalton stated that in individualistic societies, people trust their governments less and there is a sentiment of “every-man-for-himself,” which is why panic buying is occurring more in the United States. What’s more, as a psychologist from Carnegie Mellon stated, the United States responded too slowly. “Until very recently, many people heard assurance that this was not a major problem. Then, suddenly, they were told to stock up, for an indeterminate period.” However, some have raised the point that perhaps the reason why Asian countries are dealing with the situation better is because they experienced SARS in 2003, which has helped both the governments and the people respond to COVID-19.
All in all, there are various reasons as to why people are panic/bulk buying, which can mostly be explained by the four previously mentioned factors: survival mode, scarcity, herd behavior, and sense of control. To deal with this anxiety and fear, we do as others are doing, act impulsively in order to reduce risk, and try to do anything to take back control of our lives. While the way people are reacting does seem ridiculous, it should be a reminder that clearly, people around the world are stressed by the current situation.
Many of us have probably never experienced an event that could change our daily routines so drastically and for so long. The uncertainty around COVID-19 and the consequences that will come from such a pandemic make people anxious. Hence, it is crucial that people not only take extra care of their physical health, but of their mental health as well. It is also important to remember that other people are also struggling during this time. Thus, it is imperative to be kind and to be considerate about other people’s situations and needs.
 Shaw, A. M., Witcraft, S. M., & Timpano, K. R. (2016). The Relationship between Traumatic Life Events and Hoarding Symptoms: A Multi-Method Approach. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, 45(1), 49–59. doi: 10.1080/16506073.2015.1101150