Are We Panic Buying or Just Stocking Up?

Customers buy toilet paper at a warehouse store in California in early March as they prepare for a coronavirus outbreak. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

With the coronavirus outbreak spreading across the world, many people are preparing for possible quarantine by stocking up on supplies. It's the same motivation that empties the shelves of milk and bread when the forecast calls for snow.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) told Americans to prepare for an epidemic in late February.

People were urged to make sure they filled their prescriptions and beefed up their pantry with non-perishable supplies. Experts suggested that we keep our medicine cabinets stocked. And then hand sanitizer and soap began flying off the shelves.

Now, shoppers are also filling their carts with bottled water and toilet paper in what many are calling panic buying.

There are positives and negatives to this hoarding behavior, the experts say. And there are plenty of sane reasons that people do it.

Why everyone is panic shopping

Shelves with disinfectant wipes are nearly empty at a store in Novato, California, in early March.
Shelves with disinfectant wipes are nearly empty at a store in Novato, California, in early March. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

We all have different motivations for filling our shopping carts and pantries.

Uncertainty and fear

Depending on where you get your information, there are mixed messages about the severity and spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. While the CDC and national health experts are cautioning that the outbreak will affect the entire nation, some people are painting a rosier picture. You might have friends or relatives who brush it off as nothing worse than the flu.

When people hear conflicting messages about a risk, they often resort to extreme measures says Steven Taylor, clinical psychologist and author of "The Psychology of Pandemics."

"When people are told something dangerous is coming, but all you need to do is wash your hands, the action doesn't seem proportionate to the threat," he tells CNN. "Special danger needs special precautions."

In addition, people are worried about whether there will be shortages the longer the outbreak lasts.

"A lot of the narrative has focused on the disruption of global production and supply chains," Ben Oppenheim, senior director at San Francisco-based infectious disease research firm Metabiota, tells the BBC.

"There's uncertainty about whether we'll see shortages in medicines, masks and other consumables, and that uncertainty needs to get clarified and addressed."

Herd mentality

When you see store shelves that are nearly empty, you assume you should be buying too. If you're on social media and people are lamenting that they can't find hand sanitizer anywhere, you panic because you didn't buy any. When you see someone's cart filled with toilet paper and bottled water, you fill yours too, even if you have plenty of TP at home and you drink tap water.

"[Panic buying is] getting excessive play in social media and news media, and that amplifies the sense of scarcity, which worsens the panic buying," Taylor tells the BBC. "There's these snowball effects of a further increased sense of urgency."

"If everyone else on the Titanic is running for the lifeboats, you're going to run too, regardless if the ship's sinking or not," he says.

Stocking up gives a sense of control

Hearing what's going on in the world right now can be overwhelming. You read about residents in other countries who are under quarantine and Americans who are asked not to leave their homes after being exposed to someone with the virus.

Stocking up on food and supplies helps people feel in control of the situation. If you or someone in your family gets sick or has to be quarantined, at least you'll be prepared.

"Control has a huge amount to do with it," says Lauri Frenkel, who has stocked up on basics including food, medication and other supplies at her home in Atlanta. "When people are afraid of something that is beyond their control, we tend to micromanage the things we do have control over. So by going out and buying things and feeling like we are ready for whatever comes, it's a way to comfort ourselves."

Survival mechanisms

So-called panic buying is actually a "pretty rational choice," says David A. Savage, an associate professor of behavioral economics at the University of Newcastle, and Benno Torgler, a business professor at Queensland University of Technology. They write in The Conversation:

"Preparing for a period of isolation is not the result of an extreme or irrational fear but rather an expression of our ingrained survival mechanisms. Historically, we had to protect ourselves from things such as harsh winters, failing crops or infectious diseases, without the aid of modern social institutions and technologies.

"Stocking up on supplies is a valid response. It indicates citizens are not helplessly reacting to an outside circumstance but instead are thinking forward and planning for a possible situation."

A smart way to stock up on supplies

sign at store saying they are out of masks, alcohol and sanitizer
Stores are selling out of some basics as fears spread. Kevin McGovern/

People who may have been exposed to the coronavirus usually are asked to stay at home for 14 days, so it's smart to make sure you have enough supplies to at least last that long. Think about what you really need and what makes sense when you are stocking up your cart. Also remember that by buying every roll of toilet paper or every bottle of soap, you're taking supplies away from people who might really need them.

Don't buy masks. Every health care expert has said that masks won't help you if you're healthy. But people are hoarding them anyway, keep them out of the hands of health care workers who need them.

Look in your pantry, refrigerator and freezer. Plan a grocery list based on what you have and what you need. Don't just buy random items but buy food that you will actually eat and that makes sense for your family. Don't buy canned soup if you don't normally eat canned soup. It might be smarter to spend a day making soup and freezing it instead.

Remember other necessities. Don't forget tissues, detergent, personal items and, yes, toilet paper. Try to figure out how much you use in two weeks and replenish as you go. Don't forget food for pets.

Check supplies of prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever and coughing so make sure you have medications that will ease fever, as well as cough suppressants and drops. Stock up on several weeks of all your prescription drugs.