Why people are panic buying during the COVID-19 outbreak

At some time in your life, you’ve probably been guilty of panic buying.

During the coronavirus pandemic, it’s become one of the signature moves of many panicked Americans. Shelves of toilet paper and paper towels have been wiped-clean from supermarkets, disinfecting wipes disappearing for the first time ever, as is hand sanitizer.

Supermarkets and convenience stores have become barren lands of empty aisles of essentials as Americans hoard and hoard in a way they think are best to stay ahead during the COVID-19 outbreak.

As a result, supply and demand have created price surges in some industries. Amazon had an issue with sellers overpricing essential goods to make a quick buck off of consumers’ needs, to the point where one seller was chastised on the internet for stockpiling goods in his online store before The New York Times reported he eventually donated them (and started being investigated for price gouging). NASDAQ reported Friday egg prices have skyrocketed three times to what they were selling for at the beginning of March, and 400% higher than what they were selling for at the end of January.

The hoarding phenomenon is often seen when people lack control in situations beyond their grasp — like the coronavirus, where daily life has been paused. With workers working remotely and parents juggling homeschooling with their children, COVID-19 has “inverted the human dominance of nature,” according to Alan E. Stewart, a weather and climate psychology professor at the University of Georgia.

“The coronavirus has challenged and, in some ways, inverted the human dominance of nature,” Stewart told UGA Today. “This dynamic, along with the fact that virus is microscopic, that we do not yet fully know how to control it (or are just learning about predicting and controlling it) results in people fearing what they do not know.

Without knowledge of the virus, psychologically it is easy for people to ruminate and magnify their fears by imagining different possible scenarios.”

While Stewart was stumped on why toilet paper has become the comfort item during the coronavirus outbreak, it’s likely because of social media and the influence it has on our perception of the virus.

“If somehow a message is spread that a shortage may be coming, people may convey this information on social media and then this morphs via sharing and retweeting as a shortage. At first it was more apparent than real … but as people panic buy the shortage truly comes to exist more in actuality,” he said.

“Psychologically, in our global economies, most of us really do not know the origin and history of our ‘stuff’—how it is made and where it comes from. Without this knowledge and with rumors of scarcity, people begin to buy and stock up out of fear of the unknown. Even with presumably rational reporting about a good, steady supply of most things people buy in the grocery store, people seem to fear running out, running short, or doing without.”

Additional research by Psychology Today echoed Stewart’s thoughts. One study published in the journal Manufacturing and Service Operations Management took a deep dive into why consumers panic buy and how stores can act about it. As seen in many instances, especially toilet paper, stores have limited customers from buying out shelves completely by setting quotes on items in high demand.

From Psychology Today: “Not surprisingly, researchers find that people will stockpile a product for future consumption if the price is artificially low or if they feel uncertain about being able to get the product in the future. In our current situation, consumers are clearly worried that economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 virus will make it difficult to buy essential staples in the near future.”