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Uncovering the Causes of Pandemic Product Panic Buying

At the beginning of COVID-19, no one would have guessed that the #1 product consumers hoarded in record numbers would have been toilet paper, but it happened. Let’s learn more about pandemic panic buying & what causes it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it many unexpected changes to our lives. In order to keep ourselves and others safe, hand sanitizer, face masks, and social distancing are all part of our daily routine. Our kids are learning remotely through video conferences, and many of us are now working from home as best we can. It’s been a dramatic shift in how we go about our lives, but we are adapting to the circumstances. At Georgian Dental, we’ve quickly adapted to the situation and have made many changes to provide heightened levels of safety for our patients and help to stop the spread.

However, one aspect of the pandemic that came as quite a surprise to many, including us, is the drastically different shopping behaviour exhibited by consumers across the country. Panic shopping, stockpiling, and hoarding started happening in response to the onset of the pandemic, often among products that showed no evidence of being in short supply, or in fact even having any immediate benefit related to the effects of the COVID virus. Why is this?

The Causes of Panic Buying

While it may be easy to assume that the logical reason for this was simply due to the uncertainty of what effect the pandemic would have on supply chains, the reality is that a large portion of the panic shopping was spurred on by purely emotional responses to the situation. Many studies have revealed fascinating insights on why this occurs, and the factors can range from simple fear to sensible planning.

To build on that point, it’s understandable to a certain degree that certain products would appear to make sense to stockpile during a health crisis, especially the type of crisis that is caused by a viral contagion. Hand sanitizer, face masks, and disinfecting products have a direct and obvious relation to protecting oneself against infection. It is in fact true that these were among some of the products in highest demand during the early stages of the pandemic, and remain so to this day.

Although, when we look at some of the other types of products that made headlines during the pandemic, not all of them follow this logical thought process. In fact, the one that gained the most widespread attention at the onset of the pandemic had no direct relation to the effects of the virus at all. This product was toilet paper, and it is a very interesting example of the effects of panic buying. Toilet paper has no immediate need in relation to the COVID virus itself. As it is a virus that mainly affects the respiratory system, it has no effect on the digestive system and won’t cause things such as diarrhea which may result in an excess of toilet paper usage by someone infected.

If That’s The Case, Then Why Toilet Paper?

In this study published by the PLOS ONE journal on the Influence of Perceived Threat of COVID-19 and Personality Traits on Toilet Paper Stockpiling, it was the hypothesis of the researchers that the personality traits of the person heavily influenced the likelihood of them stockpiling items such as toilet paper during a crisis. Using a sample of people from 22 different countries, the results of the study seemed to suggest that the degree in which the people felt threatened by COVID-19 correlated to their likelihood to hoard more toilet paper. In addition, people who were also deemed to be more ‘conscientious’ were also observed to be more likely to stockpile. Other factors showed increased likelihood of stockpiling, such as older age demographics, as well as cultural differences in consumer behaviour like those between American and European shoppers.

While this may explain why toilet paper buying sprees were more common in some countries than others, it doesn’t necessarily explain why toilet paper was the one product that seemed to follow this strange pattern in spite of its lack of relevance to the effects of the virus itself. One answer is linked to research done by several psychologists and reported in this article on the Advisory Board website about The Psychology Behind COVID-19 Panic Buying.

In this article, experts surmise that toilet paper in particular is a shining example of an iconic product that is a staple in all homes, a value-oriented product, and available in large volume packaging. This means that it’s something we all need to buy, and it’s highly visible to all others when we put it in our carts. In the midst of a stressful situation, seeing one person with two giant packs of toilet paper in their cart immediately sets off a kind of ‘warning bell’ in our minds, spurring us to take the same action.

To further explain this, the earliest reports of toilet paper hoarding came first from China and Hong Kong. These surges in stockpiling were likely caused by media speculation that supply lines in Hong Kong may be affected by the pandemic, thereby triggering people to obtain a significant supply of household items like toilet paper in order to avoid the problem of empty shelves in the future. As this occurred, it simply became a highly visible symbol of what many people were doing in response to the pandemic, which in turn triggered even more people to follow suit. The result, as we all know, was dramatic surges in stockpiling across the globe, including in Canada and the United States.

Other Unusual Products That Surged in Demand

Of course, toilet paper wasn’t the only strange occurrence of product demand skyrocketing because of COVID-19. There were several others that, although smaller in scope, still would not have necessarily been very predictable at the onset of the crisis.

One such example is at-home hair colouring kits. As salons across the country had to shut their doors for several weeks or more, many people jumped on purchasing at-home hair dye kits in order to at least keep their hair looking the way they wanted it to. It may seem superficial to some, but it’s important to not quickly dismiss the positive psychological effects that maintaining one’s appearance can have during times of high levels of stress.

Another example is the surging demand for yeast that occurred. In no small part due to the viral trends occurring on social media, sourdough bread became a very popular DIY project for many who were looking for ways to fill the time and get creative. As yeast is an essential ingredient for bread making, many people who may have never purchased it before began grabbing it from supermarket shelves.

Another product that seemed to surge in demand overnight was certain types of over-the-counter antacid medications, specifically those that contained the active ingredient ‘famotidine’. This was sparked mainly by a study that was conducted early in the pandemic that seemed to show some correlation between the use of these types of antacids and a reduced likelihood of dying from COVID-19. This study only demonstrated a correlation between these two criteria, and did not show any specific evidence of the medicine directly contributing to the decreased risk of fatality from COVID-19.

The Danger of Mistaking Correlation for Causation

This is one of the most common traps that consumers can fall into during times of crisis and panic. It’s easy to assume that because two things seem to occur at the same time, there may be some cause-and-effect relationship between the two. However, one must always keep in mind that there is a critical difference between CORRELATION (when two things occur at the same time) and CAUSATION (one thing directly affects the other).

Even the researchers who had conducted the study were clear that much more evidence was needed before any conclusions could be drawn, but this did little to assuage the assumptions made by the media and the public, and by then this panic buying trend had already spread far and wide.

As you can imagine, this type of ‘jumping to conclusions’ behaviour based on imperfect or incomplete research can have significant negative effects. In some cases, hoarding of unnecessary goods may end up preventing those who truly do need them from obtaining them. In other cases, it may end up that those people who stockpile certain goods, especially medications they don’t need, may end up taking things they don’t need in excess and therefore cause other negative health effects as a result.

Approach Fad Buying Sprees with Caution and Do Your Research

So, how can you avoid these types of pitfalls in the future? While it can be difficult to determine exactly what you may need to stock up on during the early stages of a public health crisis, there are certain approaches you can take that will help you be prepared and not fall victim to the effects of panic shopping. First, if you have the ability to stock up on essential non-perishables such as paper products, cleaning products, first aid supplies, or medications when there is not any type of rush or panic to obtain them, then you should do so. Keeping an adequate supply on hand will help ensure that if another round of panic shopping does arise, you’ll be well prepared to ride it out without issue.

Second, when you first learn of an emergency situation or public health crisis, go to trusted and authoritative information sources for guidance on how you can best prepare and protect yourself and your family. Random posts on social media are not vetted by experts, nor should they be viewed as the definitive truth. Search out answers from organizations that are committed to public safety, such as Health Canada, for guidance that has been developed from multiple trusted professionals and expert sources. Always look for more than one trusted source to verify the accuracy and validity of information.

Here at Georgian Dental, we are committed to the ongoing relationship we have with our patients, which is why we work diligently to provide valuable and up-to-date information here on our blog. We believe that staying informed is the best way to make good choices when it comes to your health and the health of your family. If you have any questions about how you can safely obtain dental health care during COVID-19 for yourself or a family member, we encourage you to contact us today. We will be glad to answer any questions you have and arrange for an appointment at your convenience.

To learn more about how Georgian Dental has taken steps in our clinics to ensure your safety and protection during COVID-19, please refer to our COVID-19 Guide to Dental Clinic Safety.


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