Why Americans are panic shopping and how to keep yourself from doing it


Officials in more than a dozen states, as well as a growing number of cities and counties, have urged Americans to stay at home to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Some have even passed "shelter-in-place" guidelines that require residents to stay at home unless they are doing essential tasks like going to the doctor or buying food. To prepare for extended time at home, Americans are stocking up on groceries — and many are going a step further and doing what experts call panic buying

As of last week, toilet paper sales had increased 212.7% from the previous year, according to data from a Nielsen representative. Dried bean sales increased 230.5%, rice sales increased 166.1%, and soup sales increased 126.6%. 

Although it's smart to prepare, shopping in a panic leads some shoppers to hoard groceries, says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of "Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy." That means shoppers are buying more than they need, spending more than they'd like, and potentially keeping valuable resources away from others. 

Here's what causes panic shopping, and how to avoid buying more than necessary

Why people are panic shopping

"What we're trying to do is gain a sense of control," Yarrow says. "We're looking for things to do to make it look like we are managing this situation." 

Panic buying is when consumers buy large quantities of product in anticipation of, or after, a disaster. In this case, one of the only places Americans can go right now is the grocery store. 

Likewise, there aren't many steps you can take to avoid exposure to the coronavirus. That may be why you see shoppers putting inordinate amounts of beans or toilet paper or pasta boxes in their cart — there aren't many other ways people can feel prepared or like they've done something proactive. 

We're looking for things to do to make it look like we are managing this situation.
Kit Yarrow
author of 'Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy'

Shopping habits also tend to have a ripple effect, Yarrow says: Shoppers often allow what they see in another person's cart to inform what they are buying for themselves. This is especially true when it comes to taking care of others. No one wants to run out of food for their family.

"More people think we should take the risk [of hoarding and] buying too much stuff rather than be the person who can't feed their kids," she says. 

But, especially as unemployment numbers climb, it's increasingly important for many people to stick to a budget and not overspend out of fear. While buying two weeks' worth of groceries is appropriate, Yarrow says, anything more is a sign that they are letting stress make decisions for them. When someone starts hoarding, "they're not really in control; their anxiety is in control." 

How to avoid panic shopping 

It's easy to overspend at the grocery store and buy more than you can afford or more than you'll actually use. Here's how to keep yourself from buying too much. 

  • Think about what's in your pantry. Take inventory of what you already have in your pantry and what's about to expire. Then make your shopping list and stick to it.  "At the end of the day, you're going to go through your pantry and you're going to find products that are near or past expiration date," says Phil Lempert, the consumer behavior analyst known as the Supermarket Guru.
  • Remember that there is no food shortage. Empty shelves can make shoppers nervous, but in this case they signal a lag in distribution, not a lack of supply. "The food supply is secure in this country," Lempert says. Usually grocers know when they'll see an influx of shoppers and have months to plan for extra trucks and extra workers to help distribute the product, he explains. This pandemic caught grocers unaware. So when you see empty shelves, resist the urge to stockpile from other sources; instead, take a breath and remember that shelves will be restocked and you will be able to order what you need.
  • Think about other people. "To avoid hoarding, you have to imagine in your head somebody in need," Yarrow says. For example, some doctors aren't able to access the N95 respirators masks they need because others not in the medical field have been stockpiling them. Remembering other people who need something as much as you do, or, in the case of medical professionals and first responders, even more, can help you be more thoughtful before clicking "add to cart."
  • Trust yourself. Although it's natural to take context clues from people around you, Yarrow says now is the time to independently think about your needs. When you're at the grocery store and you see someone with 20 boxes of rice, you don't need to add 20 boxes of rice to your cart in response. First "stop and think and ask yourself, 'What makes me think that person has a better idea of what to do than I do?'" Yarrow says. 
  • Take control in other aspects of your life. Separate your sense of control with the act of grocery shopping. Implementing a daily routine, learning a new skill, teaching your kids a new skill, or even planning video-chat happy hours are all ways to feel more in control without shopping. "If we do that, we'll feel less focused on buying things and we'll have that sense of control that won't be around purchasing." 

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