Panic buying, a scientist’s opinion
Interview with Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Lecturer in Consumer and Business Psychology at University College London (UCL), UK
How is the spread of coronavirus changing consumer behaviour, and are such behaviours reasonable or expected in a time of crisis? When do these behaviours become irrational?
We have seen a great increase in panic buying, initially starting with products such as toilet paper, long-life foods, hand sanitiser and other health-related items, but now this has been extended to all types of goods, with supermarket shelves being completely emptied on a daily basis. Some of these actions are reasonable, if you fear you may have to go into self-isolation, you will need some stocks of food to keep you going, but it is evident that the panic buying in the UK has gone well beyond anything reasonable and rational, as consumers buy 24 packs of toilet paper when coronavirus has no significant or widespread impact on toilet visits.
Why are so many people stockpiling — especially toilet paper (and continuing to do so despite officials and authorities repeatedly urging everyone not to), what drives this behaviour, and what problems could it cause?
There may be a method behind the madness of panic-buying and stockpiling toilet roll in particular. Toilet paper has a longer shelf-life than the majority of food items, and comes in big packs that will last consumers weeks, meaning consumers are drawn to it as they know they won’t need to replace it. Toilet paper is also related to hygiene, meaning it may be the next best thing when hand sanitiser and soap are all sold out.
Due to the continued media coverage of the pandemic, people are becoming more and more anxious, and seeing everyone else stocking up causes us to feel that we should be doing the same. Consumers might not be stocking up because of coronavirus directly, but because, when they visit their local supermarket and see it with nothing but empty shelves, they feel the need to get their hands on anything they can, creating a vicious cycle.
In the case of a public health pandemic, we don’t have any previous experience to base our actions on, and so we feel out of control of what is happening. Consumers feel that the only thing they are able to control is their purchases, and so, in order to prepare for the worst-case scenario, panic buying seems to be the answer.
What would you expect consumers to be stocking up on at times of crisis/ threat and why? Would toilet paper be on that list?
In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, stockpiling is not entirely unreasonable, but, rather than toilet paper, a more logical purchase would be that of long-life food, such as tinned foods and UHT milk.
What should consumers do to be prepared for a period of self-isolation or lockdown, while also being a responsible citizen?
In preparation for self-isolation, it is of course reasonable to purchase more long-life foods and essentials. However, panic buying is not a responsible reaction to this pandemic, as it takes away essentials from people who either cannot afford to buy weeks of food in one shop, or those who cannot go to the supermarket every day to keep their pantries well-stocked. Instead, you should think carefully about foods and items you will need during a two-week period of isolation (e.g. pasta, rice, frozen foods, etc.). Also, despite the irresponsibility of panic buying, we have also seen communities coming together in this time to help those in the greatest need, offering to shop for those who cannot leave their house due to self-isolation, so, if in need, contact volunteers or nearby friends or family to help you out.
During COVID-19, what has been happening to people biologically and psychologically? What do people need in such circumstances?
Human beings are fundamentally social animals who thrive when surrounded by friends and family. When faced with uncertainty, our need to remain connected is key; as social isolation may negatively impact our mental health and potentially compromise our physical state. With the outbreak of COVID-19 and countries implementing lockdowns, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain our sanity as we stay home and are constantly flooded with COVID news. Isolation is the experience of being physically separated from others. Social isolation can have severe effects on our mental health that could trigger anxiety-related conditions. In isolation we may start feeling lonely. This in turn increases our stress and anxieties. It has been heavily documented, and reported by the APA (American Psychological Association), that loneliness can lead to long-term “fight-or-flight” stress signalling which negatively affects immune system-functioning. Evidently loneliness influences not only our mental but also physical health.