With the benefit of hindsight, what can we learn from early panic buying?

Among all the disturbing news about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, one story stood out: people were panic buying. Fortunately, those days are now behind us, with explicit queuing rules, quantity restrictions and limits on the number of shoppers all to thank.

Buying bigger baskets made sense if people were worried about not getting out of the house a lot, but in many cases panic buying went much further. That could hardly be described as rational behaviour. After all, no amount of toilet roll, lentils or tinned tomatoes can protect us from such a virus. So what was behind this behaviour and can organisations (or government) learn anything useful from it?  Isolating the psychological drivers at work might be the key to understanding – and stopping – undesirable behaviour.

Attention Years of operational improvements, fierce competition and grocery market innovation mean that our supermarket shelves are always full. So, if they are suddenly looking empty, it’s conspicuous. In such circumstances people will stop and think about buying a particular product even if they hadn’t planned to do so. Some items, such as toilet rolls, are very visible; they’re also a staple purchase.  A large quantity in someone’s trolley is likely to be noticed by others. 

Social Proof News and social media were quick to report shortages (and occasional fights).  While we told there was enough food for everyone and no need to stockpile, the implicit message was that ‘other people’ were buying lots. In these circumstances the unconscious response tends to be copy what we believe other people are doing. And in this case, the implicit message resonated much more than the overt one.

Action Bias People often exhibit a preference to act. In the face of uncertainty, or in stressful situations, our instinct is fight or flight. In the absence of a physical virus to tackle head-on, what could someone actually do faced with the threat of infection? It turned out, particularly given the media message about what ‘other people’ were doing, that buying self-raising flour and eggs was a popular response - even if you don’t know how to bake.

Scarcity When we have the ability to buy whatever we please, we are happy to take only what we need. But scarcity has a way of focusing the mind on what we don’t have.

Loss Aversion Given all of the above, if shoppers happened to have the opportunity to buy toilet paper – or flour, eggs, hand soap, etc. – it’s very likely that they would.  The innate desire to minimise future regret makes a purchase a ‘sensible’ option.

So, what can we, organisations and governments learn from this?

  • Consumers’ purchase decisions are not driven by rational mental processes. Given the human tendency to post-rationalise, it’s easy to miss a large portion of what’s behind the way customers behave if we don’t account for the role of the unconscious mind.
  • Reporting on large numbers of people breaking rules is hardly the way to improve behaviour. It just reinforces social proof and increases the prevalence of the bad habits we’re trying to prevent.
  • It is easier to change behaviour when we are very specific about what new habits we want to see. For example, instead of saying “buy less”, “self-isolate” and “keep your distance”, we can see that messages such as “limit purchases to no more than three of each item”, “you can exercise outdoors for one hour per day” and “stand two metres apart” are proving much more successful.
  • Organisations should be aware that small “problems” (such as no self-raising flour available today) will be magnified by the notice paid to them. Of course, we cannot control how those stories come to light, but given heightened attention, we do need to factor in how they will affect people’s behaviour.
Read more about Covid-19 and changing behaviour

Read more about Covid-19 and changing behaviour

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