If you have visited a grocery store in the last few weeks, you have no doubt witnessed panic buying in the aisles and, perhaps, been caught up in the behavior to some extent yourself. I’ve seen it. I may have even contributed to it when I bought the last two packages of hamburger in my local Giant food mart last week.
Such behavior has become common amid the global spread of COVID-19. The empty shelves bear witness to the fact that consumers around the world are stockpiling hand sanitizer, canned foods, toilet paper, and other goods.
The Mob Mentality
A number of books have been written about the “wisdom of crowds” and how groups of people often arrive at better decisions than individuals. Unfortunately, crowds can also become mobs. When that happens, the decisions they make generally ignore their own conscience or rational judgement – thus are not in the best interest of society or individuals.
When people are stressed, it can be difficult to think rationally. As a result, we look around to see what others are doing. When we see people scrambling for toilet paper or spaghetti, we tend to engage in similar behavior. The funny part is we may be stocking up on foods that we wouldn’t normally eat, such as lots and lots of pasta and chips. When was the last time you ate canned peaches?
For this reason, it may not be a good idea to post your photos of empty shelves on social media. If you do, you are sending signals that goods are in short supply, which could stress your friends and family and encourage panic-buying that hurts us all.
Why Are We Acting Like This?
While panic-buying may seem irrational—does anybody really need 80 rolls of toilet paper?!—it isn’t unreasonable for us to emulate the behavior of those who came before. After all, if everybody else is stocking up on toilet paper, it won’t be long before there isn’t any left for reasonable people. Better to grab the last couple packages while you can!
Behavioral economics and cognitive psychology can help us make sense of these behaviors. Information cascades and herd behavior describe how it sometimes makes sense to go along with the crowd even when you do not believe they are behaving rationally.
Understanding what is happening in the grocery store means recognizing that we do not shop simply to meet our physical needs but also to meet our emotional needs. “Retail therapy” occurs when we make purchases to manage our emotional state. Such purchases allow us to take back control in situations where we feel particularly out of control.
Where We Find Value
The coronavirus pandemic makes it particularly difficult for people to get control of their lives. It isn’t clear how long the crisis will go on or how bad things will ultimately get. In reality, sitting at home doing nothing may be the best course of action for most of us, but it does not contribute to a sense of control.
While panic buying may be irrational, other consumers behaviors make better sense. In particular, we are looking for longer term value in our purchases. This can be seen in the types of goods that consumers are buying and the shelves they are picking clean. Consumers are drawn to canned and dried goods that will keep for a long time as well as frozen foods. This was especially clear during the first couple weeks when consumers were advised to stock up.
This search for value also explains why some foods and brands remained on the shelves while seemingly similar products disappeared. In my local store, consumers focused on store brands over premium products. Pricey sauces and expensive oils remained on the shelves while lower cost versions were absent.
Planning for the Long Haul
As the coronavirus situation develops over the weeks and months ahead, we can expect to see further shifts in consumer behavior. I’ve seen some changes already at my local grocery store. While it may not reflect broader patterns, I noticed last week that the shelves of beef products were empty, while chicken remained readily available. This week, I noticed the opposite was the case. This could mean that consumers stocked up last week on beef and are now looking to do the same with chicken, or it could mean that they are shifting purchasing patterns to lower cost options in anticipation of the crisis lasting longer. Time will tell.
As time passes, economics and refrigerator space, will overtake consumer psychology in dictating purchasing behavior. Panic-buying of products with limited shelf life won’t make sense. Consumers will find a new rhythm for their purchases.
Many consumers will also begin to feel the financial pinch of lost earnings soon, if they haven’t already. Consumers unable to work will need to make their savings last longer. 27% of Americans have little or no savings, and the average American has about $183,000 in all bank and retirement accounts. Sheltering-in-place will impact tens of millions of Americans who have jobs but are not able to work, therefore not bringing home a paycheck.
Mapping the Road Ahead
Looking much further out, to a time when the worst of the crisis passes, we may see lasting changes in consumer food purchasing patterns. Consumers may find that some labels that seemed so important at the beginning of the year no longer seem quite so meaningful any longer. They may be reminded that “natural” does not guarantee safety, as the coronavirus demonstrated. On the other hand, it won’t be surprising if interest resurges in superfoods and functional foods, which can demonstrate real health benefits, perhaps helping them fend off the next COVID-19.
For now, pay attention to your behavior. Do you really need that extra roll of paper towels or toilet paper, or are you just stocking up? Pay attention to your own conscience and your own household needs rather than the frantic person pushing the grocery cart next to yours. Rest assured, the grocery stores will continue to be stocked with food and supplies.