Supermarket Queues: Is This Really Panic-Buying?

You may have heard that there were queues at the supermarket last night, and again this morning. This will probably carry on for a while, even though it’s clear that supermarkets and other essential outlets and services will remain open and stocked throughout Alert Level 3 (and Alert Level 4, should it be required). So why did people flock to the supermarkets when the Alert Level change announcement was made? Was it really ‘panic-buying’? 

If we take a moment to think through the drivers of behaviour like this, then we can see that yes, anxiety might be one reason why people go to the shops, but it’s one of many. And also, that this anxiety might be fuelled in several different ways. Once we understand this, then we can take a step back to look at our own shopping behaviour, or we can help supermarkets and other systems understand what is helpful if we want to try to modify this short-term flocking to the supermarket, for everyone’s benefit. 

1. People have fallen back into a just-in-time shopping routine, getting things as they need then. The news last night took them by surprise, and they needed to stock up on essential items as they prepare themselves to go shopping less frequently, and buying more each time they go to the supermarket. However, a big constraint to big infrequent shops is cashflow, and we know that for people living on low incomes, getting that amount of cash for a large shop can be impossible. So, having only enough food that you need and can afford is the only viable purchasing pattern for people in this situation. Trying to get these essential supplies for the next few days is critical for this group of people. 

2. Images such as queues in the supermarket, or empty shelves where flour should be tends to fuel the idea that items are scarce, and that can drive people to the supermarket to secure goods for fear that they will run out. In this sense, information like this on social media competes with other messaging that you may be receiving from official sources saying that you don’t need to rush to the supermarket, because the shops won’t close and there will be good stock supplies. However, multiple images from news sites and your own personal social media feeds that seemingly contradict this messaging may outweigh the offical message’s weight in terms of immediacy and volume. So, its no surprise that people may decide to get to the supermarket quickly, especially as though stocks remained sufficient on the whole in the last lockdown, there were very short-term shortages in some goods, such as flour, and other baking items. So, when you share that picture of empty shelves, be aware that actually what you may be doing may not be helpful. Sharing that photo is unlikely to change anything other than stoke anxiety and create a large flow of images that counter messaging that actually steady slow shopping is probably the best way to meet everyone’s needs, and also manage infection control from too many people crowding into one area at a time. 

3. People want to manage their risk of potential infection now and in the future, and so want to get their shopping before hunkering down for a while. However, rushing into an enclosed space with many other people is probably not the best way to manage this. This is where the staff working at the stores, attempting to manage the flow of people into that space becomes critical. Be kind to those essential workers. They’re doing the best to ensure you get what you need while keeping the space as safe as possible for you and for others. 

So, to a large extent, once you start looking at just a few drivers for this supermarket shopping behaviour we have seen, we can actually see it as largely rational and not panic-driven. However, its also clear that it can be driven by a deeper level of health and economic anxiety, fuelled by social media and other images and messages that compete for our attention, and can tip us over into seeking reassurance through acting, when their immediacy and currency outweighs official messaging. 

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