Panic buyers should rethink over their shopping list, experts say

Post-secondary instructors examine why the general public is afraid of running short on supplies during COVID-19

Streeters leaving the store with items they purchased on Fraser Street. Photo by Steven Chang
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By Jessica A. Froud and Steven Chang

When consumers see others clearing store shelves, there is a natural human fear response to try and regain control by stocking up your own supplies, according to a Langara psychology instructor. Yet people do have the power to overcome irrational behaviour and make intelligent decisions despite their anxieties.

Angel Chen said people often observe each other during an emergency to determine an appropriate course of action, which is called informational social influence.

This is what is happening in stores since the COVID-19 outbreak has spread around the globe, she said.

“When we observe others panic-buy, we copy their actions because we assume this is how we are supposed to act,” said Chen in an email to The Voice. “The problem is that other people’s actions are not always accurate.”

Stocking supplies can seem like the most reasonable approach to an uncontrollable event such as a pandemic, Chen said. Over-preparing has had its advantages since ancient times when humans competed for resources in preparation for the future, she added.

Chen said although it makes sense to purchase sufficient necessities, when the public reacts to misinformation about supply shortages, this can lead to a shortage in reality. 

She referred to an example from 1973, when economic troubles had many people in the U.S. nervous about supply shortages, and late-night talk show host Johnny Carson made a joke about toilet paper running out. Supermarkets ran out of toilet paper by noon the next day.

Consumers can’t control the COVID-19 pandemic but they still have the power over what they can purchase, according to Chen. 

She said stocking up is only necessary for those who have trouble going out such as seniors or self-isolating people. 

Amy Hanser, a UBC sociology professor, said it’s also a challenge for people to draw up a strategic grocery list to feed themselves and their families for an uncertain amount of time. 

“People don’t know how to prepare for two or three weeks’ worth of food,” Hanser said. “We don’t usually live our life that way.”

Hanser said some people may have difficulty adapting their shopping strategy for a longer period of self-isolation.

She said people may not be used to looking for frozen and canned produce instead of fresh produce. Households also may not have enough storage space for large amounts of groceries. 

B.C. gin distiller Mike Pizzitelli is now making hand sanitizer and supplying local healthcare clinics due to the shortages that are happening across Canada.

Pizzitelli holds two Master’s degrees. One in cell biology and anatomy from Western University and another in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University.

“I’m not sure if I’m making sanitizer as a direct result of panic buying or a lack of it in the first place,” Pizzitelli said.

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