Why we panic buy

Maud Webster unpacks the reasons why we panic buy.

Maud Webster
6th October 2020
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

You’re aware of the possibility that it might be harder to get food from the supermarket soon, that things might start going out of stock. You see on the news that people are starting to stockpile food, household supplies, bottled water even. You think, “Maybe I should start getting a little bit more pasta, a few more tins, just to be on the safe side.” You’ve entered the mentality of panic buying. Why?

When we are experiencing or are apprehensive of a societal disaster, then large quantities of consumers are triggered to panic buy; triggered both by individuals believing there’s a potential scarcity of products, and by individuals participating in herd behaviour. Some people start panic buying, which spurs other people to do the same, until everyone is buying far more than they need and then suddenly there is nothing left. Demand has exceeded supply. The self-fulfilling prophecy is in play: consumers have caused the very shortage they predicted.

Though panic buying can take form in other commercial places, such as the oil and precious metal markets, it typically occurs in medicine, food and household supplies. We’ve seen it happen in the UK during the first & second world wars, and most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What impact does this have? Well, not everyone can afford to panic buy, and those with low incomes experience an exasperated lack of resources. In regards to food, vast amounts of wastage ensues as those who have panic-bought realise they have too much to consume. With medicine, it becomes harder for certain groups to access even basic painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen. This shows how the experiences of families and individuals of different incomes have a heightened disparity during times of distress. There is clearly an impact on health. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, politicians reiterated wartime messages of ‘we are all in this together’; the disproportionate effects of panic buying is just one example that disproves this mentality. 

Source: Boris Johnson's Facebook page

Unfortunately, I doubt people will rework this panic-buying mentality in the face of perceived disaster. As we enter the UK's second wave of COVID-19, supermarkets are preparing for a repeat of the panic buying witnessed in March. By majorly increasing their capacity, supermarkets may be able to lessen the effects of panic-buying, but this move clearly shows how panic-buying is expected to re-occur. Perhaps it is just human nature; panic buying is inevitable.

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AUTHOR: Maud Webster
she/they | third year architecture & urban planning student @ newcastle | co-head of culture for the 21/22 academic year

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