Panic buying or exerting control?
Andy J. Yap is an assistant professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, and Charlene Y. Chen is an assistant professor of marketing at Nanyang Business School. This piece was first published in The Business Times, Singapore, on Feb. 20.
Face mask hoarding is a fairly understandable response to fears the 2019 novel coronavirus (Covid-19) could reach pandemic proportions.
Seemingly less logical has been the rush for dry food products, toilet paper and other supplies which, to date, have shown little sign of running out.
Singapore’s social media has been flooded with images of empty store shelves and people buying large quantities of paper goods, rice and instant noodles after the city-state raised its alert level from “yellow” to “orange,” reflecting a heightened virus risk. The mass buying prompted some stores to impose a purchasing limit on dry goods and vegetables while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called for calm assuring Singaporeans, “We have ample supplies, there’s no need to stock up.”
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, toilet rolls have become a hot commodity, and shoppers have cleared shelves of staple products, including tissue paper and cleaning supplies. Retailers have also reported high sales of frozen dumplings and bottled water. It has also been reported that was a toilet paper heist by armed gangs in Hong Kong. Indeed, toilet paper is the hot new currency in this region. And in Indonesia, where the country’s Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization have yet to confirm a single case of coronavirus, there has been a scramble for popular basic ingredients causing the price of chillies, garlic, eggs and aubergines to balloon to double the normal price.
It is difficult to explain the rush on stores given there has been little or no indication that supplies are low. While some reports have attributed the panic buying to a growing distrust of Chinese authorities’ ability to keep people safe or tell them the truth, social scientists have described this as a herd instinct that is triggered by fear and spread through social media.
However, there is also evidence that this focus on buying practical goods is a behavioral reaction to feelings of stress and uncertainty. A form of retail therapy if you will, only instead of splurging on the latest fashion garment or gadget, consumers purchase utilitarian products associated with problem solving, which may enhance people’s sense of control.
In recent research we conducted with Leonard Lee, professor of marketing at the NUS Business School, we looked at the types of products that appealed to consumers when they felt control deprived. We hypothesized, and found, that consumers would compensate for a loss of perceived control by buying useful products designed to fill a basic need or accomplish a task. Closer analysis suggested this preference was due to the products’ association with problem solving or its ability to help manage a problem.
The research includes a series of studies written up in the paper, “Control Deprivation Motivates Acquisition of Utilitarian Products,” published in the Journal of Consumer Research, in which we found that a group of participants who had been asked to recall a situation where they had felt a low sense of control over their environment bought more practical items during a supermarket trip (goods such as cooking ingredients and household cleaners) compared to another group who were asked to recall a time when they were well and truly in control. Follow-up studies showed that consumers whose sense of control was threatened were far more likely to favor functional sneakers over more fashionable footwear or book a therapeutic massage over a relaxing one.
Loss of control doesn’t mean being out of control or lacking self-discipline. It refers to the everyday, fundamental experience of being unable to take action to help address a situation or produce a desired outcome in a given environment. It is important to note that loss of control differs from a lack of autonomy, which is when people feel they lack the power to act according to their own will.
People in countries, particularly in high-density cities where fears of a pandemic could start, may be stressed by the potential spread of the virus or the panic that is rising around them and seek to restore their sense of equilibrium by exerting control in their own lives by buying practical, utilitarian products.
With roughly 50 million people now under quarantine in China, and the novel coronavirus rapidly spreading, it is unlikely that purchasing hand wipes, instant noodles or even face masks will keep people completely safe. However, just purchasing the goods may help to keep them calm and give them a sense that they still have some control over their lives.