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Panic Buying. What’s The Science?

So, when does prudent planning and preparation instead become panic buying?

Panic buying is happening more and more frequently, by what is the reason behind it? The answer to that perhaps is in the timing of the purchase, the practical reason for the purchase and the emotional reasoning behind it. Whether its petrol, toilet roll, medications, microchips or essential food items, there are some items that are vital, and you could argue there are some that you could do without, though let’s hope that there is no shortage of soap at the same time.

Panic buying petrol

The masses of humanity, of which we are all of course part, is being fuelled by panic. This isn’t just a UK problem at the moment. From truck drivers to vaccines to microchips there has consistently been a shortage for the last couple of years.  Pictures of empty shelves, limits on purchases, queues outside shops and petrol stations continue to build on the fear. 

The most recent high-profile incident in the UK, where for reasons of pure panic, the country is suffering a fuel crisis is a case in point. The media headlines take a simple sound bite of ‘we are running a bit short in a couple of locations’ and spin it up into a whirlwind in order to sell their advertising. Social media too, shared in moment is spread or retweeted to double down on the impact.  As Franklin D Roosevelt said: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  With a self-fulfilling prophecy like this it’s remarkable how true that is.

Panic buying shelves empty

So why is the world being overtaken by the psychology of scarcity?

With a little bit of fuel, pardon the pun, perfectly normal, sensible people, battered by years of the pandemic begin to act irrationally. However, its too easy to add the dreaded P word and make assumptions.  The truth is, that the human race is more of a collective herd.  Shortages are nothing new. They happen all the time. The constant yo yo of the commodities markets, too much oil, too little. Vast stockpiles of cocoa, to damn! The weather failed and where did it all go?

Market forces mean prices changes up and down based on availability. Perhaps the fault is with our modern way of thinking. Have we all become too used to the instant gratification of having everything we want and having it delivered in thirty minutes time?  Do we all now have an assumption that everything should always be available?  What happened to seasonal fruit and vegetables? Things run out, though with new growing methods you really can get pretty much whatever you want whenever.  But has that changed the essence of who we are now?  At the first glimpse of running out of something a million people descend on a shop to buy loo roll or pasta and fill up with more than they could consume in months.

Panic buying toilet roll

Fuelling the problem

The recent issues of fuel shortages, or loo roll, or whatever, have nothing to do with actual shortages. Its all about perceptions. The companies that produce and deliver our goods operate finely managed logistics systems, just enough, just in time.  Now I don’t work for BP, but I do work for Shell, and I have to say I feel sorry for BP that they have caught the flak on this one.  There is bucket loads of fuel in the UK. There is no shortage! The issue is that when a million people overnight change their habits, because they have read inflammatory headlines, the fuel shortage, at the point of delivery becomes self-fulfilling.

We don’t need to mobilise the army each time someone worries about running out and they start panic buying!

We just need to keep calm and carry on.

First published on LinkedIn by Rob Phayre.


“Petrol queue” by Sokwanele – Zimbabwe is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

“Empty shelves at a grocery store” by waitscm is licensed under CC BY 2.0