Why Panic Buying Isn't The Answer Right Now (And How To Avoid It)

(Photo: MesquitaFMS via Getty Images)
(Photo: MesquitaFMS via Getty Images)

We’ve been down this aisle before... and again, and again. But panic buying is not the answer. Please do not hoard that toilet roll.

Stockpiling was all the rage a few lockdowns ago (now there’s a sentence we never thought we’d write), and with some popular items going out of stock once more, shoppers are starting to supermarket sweep all over again.

HGV lorry driver shortages, all that Brexit kerfuffle, the summer pingdemic and the current carbon dioxide shortage (yes, really) haven’t helped along the way.

Tesco recently told government officials that the dearth of truck drivers would lead to panic-buying in the run-up to Christmas if no action was taken.

Supermarket shelves of carbonated drinks and water were left empty in some places and turkey producers have warned families could be left without their traditional turkey lunch on December 25 if the carbon dioxide shortage continues.

In a further sign of worsening supply chain issues, BP temporarily closed some of its 1,200 UK petrol stations due to a lack of both unleaded and diesel grades, which it also blamed on driver shortages. ExxonMobil’s Esso said a small number of its 200 Tesco Alliance retail sites had also been impacted.

Now with Christmas not too far off, supermarkets are issuing warnings asking people not to stockpile ahead of the festive period.

Tesco and Iceland have both issued warnings against panic buying, while promising to hire more people to deal with staff shortages, while M&S is making emergency provisions such as potentially operating on reduced hours.

One remaining can of soft drink on a near-empty shelf at Asda (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images)
One remaining can of soft drink on a near-empty shelf at Asda (Photo: Chris J Ratcliffe via Getty Images)

Despite their warnings, supermarkets are urging their customers to stay calm.

Richard Walker, Iceland’s managing director, told Sky News: “We’re fortunate, we’re obviously frozen experts, we’ve got lots and lots of stock, we’re fully available. I’m not overly concerned and certainly there’s no need for customers to panic buy. We certainly don’t want to go back to those dark days.”

And Tesco has since assured customers it is equipped to deal with shortages, relaxing its HGV training and the hours its staff work to deal with them.

“We have good availability, with deliveries arriving at our stores and distribution centres across the UK every day,” a spokesperson said. “While the industry-wide shortage of HGV drivers has led to some distribution challenges, we’re working hard to address these and to plan for the months ahead, so that customers can get everything they need.”

The government has extended emergency state support to avert a shortage of poultry and meat and small business minister Paul Scully said Britain was not heading back into a 1970s-style “winter of discontent”.

“There is no need for people to go out and panic buy,” Scully told Times Radio. “Look, this isn’t a 1970s thing at all,” he added, referencing the 1978-79 winter when inflation and strike action left the economy and power supply in chaos.

The people who should be panicking are the government.Richard Walker, managing director, Iceland

Others say the government need to do more. “The dramatic pictures that you might have seen in the media are isolated incidents and not widespread,” Iceland’s boss, Walker, told customers.

“But the people who should be panicking are the government, and I believe that the sooner they clear up this mess, and get retail workers and HGV drivers on to the key worker list, the better.”

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng confirmed a “very narrow” list of sectors whose workers will be exempt from isolation rules will be published on Thursday afternoon. He would not confirm if this list will include the food sector, but he also urged the public not to panic buy.

Why panic buying doesn’t help the situation

While panic-buying is an understandable reaction to an uncertain situation, it could have a profound impact on supply chains – and people’s lives.

HuffPost UK previously spoke to therapists about how to resist the urge to panic buy and the message was clear: focus on alleviating your anxiety, not filling your shopping basket. Panic buying only perpetuates further shortages, leaving some of the most vulnerable people without.

Ratula Chakraborty, professor of business management at the University of East Anglia, told HuffPost UK that stocking up on supplies is really only advised for elderly people or families with members who have underlying health conditions.

Amid the panic buying of the pandemic lockdowns, she said: “People are just taking whatever they can lay their hands on – that’s not a very sensible reaction at all. In the process, they’re making other people anxious that they won’t find their stuff, so it leads to a domino effect.”

Why actually makes us panic buy?

Psychotherapist Nick Blackburn said people are trying to “solve” their anxiety by buying supplies, but when they get to the shops, they’re likely to experience more anxiety because items are running low.

Then there’s the added stress of being criticised or hearing snarky comments by others for doing it – in the supermarket or all over social media. “That’s not the way to make fearful people feel better,” Blackburn told HuffPost UK.

Hansa Pankhania, a therapist of 25 years and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), believes panic buying is also driven by helplessness, fear and loss of control.

When people panic-buy it’s a “gesture”, she said – they’re doing something to help themselves in an otherwise helpless situation. When we have no control over the bigger picture, we crave control in our “micro world” – our home and daily routines. And in this case, people are doing it by buying up supplies.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan ahead. “I suppose if you’ve planned the panic-buying then it isn’t panic-buying,” Blackburn told HuffPost UK. “It might not be possible to plan as far ahead as we might like to, but try to focus on what’s practical to get now.” Having a plan already lessens the anxiety.

So, the message: avoid panic buying but try not to scroll or share scaremongering posts on social media either. And remember, if your local supermarket is out of a certain item, you can always try independent corner shops which are often well-stocked with goods, as well as local suppliers, farms and wholesalers, many of whom will deliver to your door.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.