Panic Buying: How is it affecting everyone?

Empty Shelves

On December 31st 2019, the World Health Organisation first heard of a potentially deadly, unknown virus. Since the outbreak of Coronavirus in January this year, a rapidly rising number of confirmed cases and deaths has instilled a massive cause of fear, panic and concern for everyone.

Over the past few months, the Independent hand sanitiser sales have gone up 255% after the WHO recommended using it more often.

This was just the beginning. The fear and panic as coronavirus edges closer to home has started a new wave of panic buying. Panic buying is a phenomenon where consumers mass buy household goods and non-perishable food in anticipation for a potential disaster. It can also be described as an instinctive behaviour. Sarah Clark, a therapist based in Ashford said, “I do think that panic buying is a form of anxiety”.

At the end of March, MarketingWeek reported that over 72% of retailers in the UK were reporting shortages, and over 25% of consumers admitted to stockpiling, or panic buying.

Empty freezers
Empty freezers at Tesco Park Farm
Empty Shelves
Barren shelves, again, at Tesco Park Farm

Empty freezer fridges and shelves have been a common sight in most supermarkets in the past few weeks as customers attempt to stock up on household goods and food. Olivia Percy, a Partner at Waitrose, said that since the pandemic started “customers tend to panic buy toilet rolls, hand sanitiser, cereal and pasta”. In response to this, they have made a few changes to how their stores operate.

“Customers tend to panic buy toilet rolls, hand sanitiser, cereal and pasta” – Olivia Percy

Most supermarkets have implemented purchase restrictions on items. Sam Epps, a Sainsbury’s employee said “we have currently got a two-unit limit for toilet roll, UHT Milk, Hand soap/sanitiser and three units for everything else. I know this is due to be lifted soon or may have been already.” In Tesco’s and Asda, customers can only purchase a maximum of three items of any one unit (for example, a maximum of three boxes of any one cereal, or three bags of pasta). Customers at Morrisons are only able to fill one trolley of shopping, with some multi-buy restrictions. These restrictions still stand.

Restrictions on items are not the only changes that supermarkets have made over the recent weeks. Lauren Baugh, an Iceland employee discussed what is happening there.

“I work at Iceland The Food Warehouse and I am an online picker and cashier. On a day to day basis I am always up early, at about 5am to pick the online deliveries for the customers. Depending on how many we get this can take as much time until we open which is at 8 o’clock. The online average is about 20 to 30 a day but due to coronavirus pandemic we have had a rise of about 75 online per day. When the shop opens I essentially become a cashier serving customers and helping them with any of their needs. Iceland is using a social distancing method of only letting approximately 10 customers in the shop at once. This is due to everyone’s safety including us staff. We have a member of staff on the door letting customers into the shop when available. When the customers approach the till, there is marked guidelines of tape on the floor to ensure customers stand at a reasonable distance until they are called over to the till.”

The limits to the amount customers can buy and also how many in store at any one time helps massively in ensuring that everyone has fair access to products. Lauren went on to mention that “another policy we have decided to change is change our opening times – 9 to 10 o’clock are strictly for OAPs, between 5 and 6 in the evening is for people who work for the NHS. They have to show ID”.

Sharon is a health care assistant. She lives with her partner, a paramedic, and their two children. “I went to Australia for Christmas where we first heard of the virus, and I realised it would be coming all over the world”. With her family’s best interests in mind, she started making appropriate preparations. “When we got back to England which was the 13th of January, within that week I started buying extra food – instead of buying 2 tins, I bought 4. I bought food I wouldn’t usually buy like fruit or tinned veg.” When asked her why she started preparing so early and chose not to go out and panic buy, like we have seen all over social media and television. “I did it because I thought that potentially there could be an issue with food, and I didn’t want there to be a shortage. I bought a couple of extra things each week over the course of the month, as opposed to going shopping in a couple of visits and panic buying, which I feel is very selfish.”

However, not all shoppers shared the same behaviours and initiative whilst shopping like Sharon.

“Bread, eggs, flour, loo rolls, cereal, pasta, rice, tinned fruit and veg, fresh meat (mainly chicken and beef) hand wash, cleaning products, paracetamol and children’s medicine equivalents and frozen foods are basically non-existent – they are the first to go” said Charlotte Clark, an employee at Sainsburys in Bath. Charlotte said she was exhausted. Since the pandemic broke out, she has worked over her usual 20-hour contract by working a 38-hour week instead. This peaked at 60 hours at one point to provide extra help and cover sick colleagues. “Sainsburys have gotten to the point where they will not put hand sanitizer on the shelves as they are putting it back to protect staff. A lot of the people panicking buying were families with children as they’ve put their houses on complete lockdown for like 3 months. People were literally going around with two or three trollies. We’ve had to ban some people from the store because of the increase in stealing, especially from food bank bins and online shopping trollies”. Sainsburys has now introduced new measures to help stop this. “Since the reduced opening times, limiting customers and items it is possible to get some of the stuff that has been sold out constantly due to panic shoppers. But again, it’s all limited so there’s no guarantee”.

In the UK there are over 2000 food banks. Between these, services vary from one to another but they all provide one main service – to make sure families who are desperate are fed. Panic buying has caused a huge knock-on effect for food banks, and it’s making their work a lot harder. “We rely on three things heavily,” said Tony Barnard. Tony has worked at the Ashford Family Food Bank since its opening in 2013. “We rely on donated food, people donating their money and people donating their time”. Tony went on to describe what sort of options they offer their customers. “We put two types of boxes together, one for families and one for individuals. Now we can only offer one box – that box weighs 12 kilograms and should feed a family of four for a week”. Like most people the items that they need the most to fill the boxes, are the hardest to get, are everyday necessities, like pasta, rice and milk. Tony described the service as “struggling”. Before the pandemic the service in Ashford used to send out around 300 boxes a week to families – but now, they are down to 150. Tony assured me it will return to normal soon. Thankfully, food banks like Tony’s, receive a massive amount of community support that helps soften the blow. Community involvement ranges from Tony said that “we have had a lot of support from people providing monetary donations, food donations and also volunteering to drop off boxes”.

Listen to the interview below…

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