COVID-19: How uncertainty affects our consumer behaviour

As the novel coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the world without treatment or a vaccine, uncertainty and fear prevails, leading many people to stockpile food, cleaning products and toilet paper. But is this a reasonable response in the face of a pandemic crisis?

On March 11, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic. This was only twelve weeks after the disease (COVID-19) had first appeared in the city of Wuhan in China, and which since then has spread to 185 countries, infecting almost 3 million people and claiming more than 190,000 lives. This rising number of cases around the world has led to an increase in uncertainty, anxiety and fear, shaping people’s buying behaviours.

In a time of crisis, when we feel under threat, it is not uncommon to have a sudden need to stock up on supplies. Especially as people have had to prepare for self-isolation or quarantine, having enough food, household items and medicines is rational. ‘However, panic buying is not a responsible reaction to this pandemic,’ argues Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos at University College London. Although panic buying helps people feel in control of the situation and cope with uncertainty and anxiety, it can make shortages worse and prices rise, as well as take essential goods away from people who either need them more or cannot get to the supermarket every day.

Why toilet paper?

Surprisingly, one particular item that has been flying off the shelves is toilet paper. This goes “well beyond anything reasonable and rational,” according to Dr Tsivrikos, especially as “coronavirus has no significant or widespread impact on toilet visits”. “Rather than toilet paper, a more logical purchase would be that of long-life food, such as tinned foods and UHT milk,” he says.

Dr Tsivrikos suggests the reason behind this irrational behaviour is that “toilet paper has a longer shelf-life than the majority of food items and comes in big packs that will last consumers weeks”. He also points out that it is related to personal hygiene, and could be bought as an alternative when the shelves of hand sanitisers and soaps are empty.

Herd mentality further adds to the panic buying. “Consumers might not be stocking up because of coronavirus directly, but because, when they visit their local supermarket and see it with nothing but empty shelves, they feel the need to get their hands on anything they can, creating a vicious cycle,” says Dr Tsivrikos. This behaviour could also be fuelled by the continued media coverage of the pandemic which creates more anxiety, he says.

Effective communication

During this pandemic, people have been exposed to negative images, such as empty supermarket shelves, and a plethora of mixed information, both on social media and in the news. Quality sources of information are essential for avoiding falsities and dealing with uncertainty, but despite authorities repeatedly urging everyone not to stockpile, for example, these messages have mostly been ignored — and this could be down to trust.

While many previous epidemics, such as the swine flu (H1N1), Ebola, and MERS, have shown how important a two-way communication between authorities and the public is, the communication amid COVID-19 remains unilateral, says Professor Gesser-Edelsburg. Instead of addressing the public’s fears and concerns and communicating the risk, the authorities have framed their speculations as misinformation, she says, which leads to people rejecting the messages communicated. “An inclusive and transparent communication, and especially one tailored to subpopulations, can have an impact on public trust and get the public to cooperate,” she explains.

Additionally, in the past, authorities have falsely communicated uncertainty to the public as certainty. This resulted to large parts of the public distrusting them, says Professor Gesser-Edelsburg. With coronavirus, authorities have managed to express uncertainty, she points out, but “the question is whether the very declaration of uncertainty is enough to maintain public trust”.

Effective communication and public trust can help us get through this pandemic. Actions driven by anxiety, fear and uncertainty may make us feel in control, but they also risk sending society into chaos.

By Julianna Photopoulos, freelance science journalist

The orginal article has been published here by the European Science-Media Hub

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