All over the world, wherever coronavirus is spreading, people are panic buying. And, they’re not just stockpiling cans of baked beans, pasta and rice. They’re taking other goods like hand sanitiser, face masks, toilet paper and medicines too. Retail executives are doing a great job ensuring that consumers do not face really serious shortages. But there’s no denying that items are flying off the shelves, stocks are becoming depleted and, in some stores, rationing is setting in. It’s in nobody’s best interests for demand to keep on growing at the current rate. Brexit taught us that shifts in daily living expectations can cause panic buying, so UK retailers may already be better prepared for that phenomenon than those in other countries. But, exactly why do consumers become so desperate to hoard? And, what can retailers do to calm the situation down?

Shopping is a reflection of our emotional state

We don’t always go shopping for purely functional reasons. Many of us shop in response to our emotional state. We call it retail ‘therapy,’ after all. In a world where everything seems to be getting increasingly scary and ‘out of control’, it is no surprise that people are buying to put themselves back in control.

Everybody’s doing it!

Right now we are surrounded by news reports, videos and images of people panic buying in stores. When consumers go into stores, they see shelves that are emptier than ever before. Suddenly, it seems like everybody else is stocking up on essentials and so it seems like the smart thing to do. Jumping when others jump is a basic survival instinct.

Conflict and fear

People are receiving conflicting messages not just from their own governments but by tapping into the news feeds of other governments around the world. A contagion of fear is taking grip. And the anxiety is worsened because, unlike other national emergencies such as fire or flood, coronavirus is something completely new. There are no pre-existing protocols in place for dealing with it and once people start to panic they become increasingly irrational in their responses.

So how does knowing all this help retail executives? Firstly, it highlights the importance of retailers speaking with a single, unanimous voice and telling people not to mass buy. Secondly, understanding people’s general tendency to catastrophise a situation puts the focus firmly on reassurance and calm – making it clear that there is stock in the system. Finally, appreciating that coronavirus has heightened the way individuals shop at an emotional level enables retailers to better structure a calming response to the fear-panic-control behaviours that are driving their customers. Retail executives have an important role to play in the coming months as we continue to tackle this global problem.