Download Report

Thank you! Your copy of the report opened in a new tab. If you have trouble viewing it,click here.

Your personal information is kept in accordance with our Privacy Notice.

The ‘why’ behind the ‘panic buy’


Memories of panic buying may be fading here in the UK but have resurfaced elsewhere1. The near constant threat of another wave of Covid-19 may yet prompt another round of hyper demand. Whilst there is little hard evidence to determine the underlying drivers of panic buying2, there are numerous theories that the retail industry may benefit from exploring.

Feroud Seeparsand, dunnhumby's Senior Consumer Psychologist, outlines some likely theories to explain the 'why' behind the 'panic buy' and some implications for retailers to prevent it reoccurring in future.

1.Loss Aversion

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman stated that 'loss aversion' was his and Amos Tversky's single greatest contribution to decision-making theory3.

We feel the pain of loss more than an equivalent gain. In other words, losing £100 hurts more than the joy of winning £100. When applied to panic buying, we fear for the loss of a product we could otherwise have had. Perhaps more to the point, we would normally have had access to a variety of products. Relative to this normal point of reference, the relative loss of not possessing a product helped lead to panic. As customers would normally possess a certain product, the relative loss of it created pain.

A curious detail is that small numbers can make big differences, a concept called 'diminishing sensitivity'; winning £200 does not double the joy relative to winning £100. In other words, even small numbers of a valued product can have a significant effect on one's decision making. It is because of this diminishing sensitivity customers may lean towards zero risk aversion, in other words not to risk missing out on a product; if you see it, buy it!

Implication for retailers: Use the new reference point that past panic buying did not stop most customers obtaining products.

2.Social Norms

Another Nobel Prize-winning economist, Richard Thaler, and his colleague Cass Sunstein highlighted numerous heuristics to nudge behaviour4; one of these is social norms or copycat behaviour. We are perhaps all guilty of assuming restaurants with longer queues have superior dishes or assuming that the more popular films, plays or books are worth consuming. When applied to retail, if a customer sees another purchasing a particular item, the odds are that they will follow. This can easily be exaggerated through social media and news reports.

It does not matter if this perception is factually inaccurate; perception will still hold sway. If customers do cause products to sell out as a result, this is likely to lead to a scarcity effect, where those products are valued even more than before. This can be further exacerbated if such products are perceived to be potential life savers, like hand sanitisers or medicine.

Implication for retailers: Highlight how most people are not panic buying. Foodstuffs North Island and South Island, in New Zealand, got out ahead by introducing their 'Shop Normal' campaign, which encouraged customers to 'shop normally and be kind in supermarkets'. Tesco in the UK also ran a 'Together we can do this' campaign in national media to encourage people to 'shop normally together'.

3.Uncertainty Breeds a Desire for Control

Sometimes the actions that can save lives, such as hand washing and social distancing, are simply not enough to regain a sense of control5, as they are too dependent upon the goodwill of others. Therefore, there remains a need to reduce anxiety. Stockpiling or buying more, as a form of retail therapy, is a manner for regaining control.

Scientists have found uncertainty leads to the consumption of utilitarian products (such as cleaning agents and cooking ingredients), i.e. products that give you something to do6. Shoppers are less likely to be interested in the latest fashion trends. When one adds to the mix a virus that demands hygiene, the hyper-demand for particular products can be better understood. The same scientists explore the concept of 'displaced coping', where shoppers purchased items that are of no direct relevance to their uncertainty. This may go one step to explain the recent insatiable worldwide desire for toilet paper.

Implication for retailers: Provide customers with products that may provide a sense of control, such as gardening, DIY, crafts, puzzles.

4.Game Theory

Whilst behavioural economics and nudge theory assume irrationality, game theory (which also can claim a Nobel Prize by John Nash, as featured in the film A Beautiful Mind), assumes rationality.

In the same way panic buying exists, customers may panic and create a bank run, where customers take money out en masse which then collapses a bank. In one study, it was found that asking participants to recount a time when they felt fear was found to increase the likelihood of a bank run in the form of a game format7. There was some evidence that inducing sadness was less likely to create a bank run. Given the emotion of fear led to bank runs, it is of little wonder that the fear of a pandemic may have led to panic buying.

Implication for retailers: Influence emotion to avoid fear (e.g. through in-store media and music).

5.Personality Theory

A recent global survey addressed toilet paper hoarding through personality traits8. It was found that customers who felt more threatened by the pandemic, possessed greater emotionality and greater conscientiousness (i.e. planned more) led to more toilet paper hoarding. This study may suggest that appealing to higher values2,9 (ie encouraging responsible behaviour) may not help to avoid panic buying.

Implication: Encourage long term planning and purchase of long shelf life products, to ease supplies if a second or third wave returns.

6.Concluding remarks

This is not an exhaustive causal list, but instead focuses on theories that could have at least some practical application to limit panic buying. The theories covered include areas that assume irrationality, such as behavioural economics and nudge theory, or rationality such as game theory. Other theories may sit more on the fence.

Whatever the drivers for panic buying this is a topic that retailers need to address. Even if panic buying does not reoccur within the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely to return in some future event whether it be a natural disaster, climate change, strikes or supply shortages.



2. Lunn, P. et al (2020). Using Behavioural Science to Help Fight the Coronavirus: A Rapid, Narrative Review. Journal of Behavioral Public Administration Vol 3(1): doi: 10.30636/jbpa.31.147

3. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin

4. Thaler and Sunstein (2008). Nudge. Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Penguin

5. Taylor, S (2019). The Psychology of Pandemics. Cambridge

6. Chen, C.Y. and Pham, M.T. (2018). Affect regulation and consumer behaviour. Consumer Psychology Review 2(1): 114-144

7. Dijk, O. (2017). Bank Run psychology. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 144: 87-96.

8. Garbe L., et al (2020) Influence of perceived threat of Covid-19 and HEXACO personality traits on toilet paper stockpiling. PLoS ONE 15(6): e0234232.


white and blue magnetic card

Photo by Avery Evans on Unsplash

Most companies attempting to drive customer loyalty fail miserably—and few so-called customer-centric companies generate sustainable customer loyalty that drives measurable business results. Why? Because they get three key principles completely wrong, right from the start:

  1. Loyalty is about the company acting loyally to its customers, not vice versa.
  2. It is about a loyalty approach, not a loyalty program.
  3. Loyalty is about the store, not only about the CRM.
Keep Reading...Show less

[This is the fourth in a series of articles advocating the voice of the Customer in the highly competitive food-retail industry. David Ciancio is Global Customer Strategist for dunnhumby, a pioneer in Customer data science, serving the world's most Customer-centric brands in a number of industries, including retail. David has 48 years experience in retail, 25 of which were in Store Management. He can be reached at].

Treating Customers differently based on their 'profitability' is counter-productive to building loyalty and toward creating a healthy retail Customer Experience.

Keep Reading...Show less

The dunnhumby Consumer Pulse Survey is a multi-phased, worldwide study of the impact of COVID-19 on customer attitudes and behavior. We surveyed more than 27,000 respondents online in 22 countries, with interviews conducted for Wave one from March 29 – April 1, for Wave two from April 11 – 14, and for Wave three from May 27 – 31. Due to the rapidly unfolding crisis in North America, dunnhumby conducted Wave four from July 9 – 12 in the U.S., Canada and Mexico only. Here are highlights from the study:

Keep Reading...Show less

In a series of posts published earlier this year, we covered the results of the dunnhumby Customer Pulse – a global study designed to explore changing consumer mindsets during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over three waves, conducted between March and the end of May, we polled thousands of people from more than 20 countries on subjects including supermarkets' responses to the outbreak, the economic outlook, and how their shopping behaviour had changed due to COVID.

At the beginning of September – three months on from the previous wave and with supply chains stable and the changing nature of lockdowns – we wanted to revisit the Customer Pulse to see what, if anything, had changed. Below are some of the standout findings from this fourth tranche of research.

Keep Reading...Show less

assorted fruits at the market

Photo by ja ma on Unsplash

In the decade since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness was published, nudge theory has enjoyed unprecedented success.

Predicated on the idea that individuals respond better to indirect suggestion than outright commands, nudge theory is commonly used as a way of subtly influencing our behaviour towards positive choices. The idea has gained such traction, in fact, that many governments around the world have created "nudge units" in a bid to tackle thorny issues like obesity and the climate emergency.

Keep Reading...Show less

Are you looking to increase your contactable Customer base? How much money are you losing on incorrectly identified Customer communications? Throughout our 30 years of big data experience working with clients across industries around the globe, we have found that maintaining contact through relevant Customer engagement is a crucial component of putting the Customer First.

Essential to preserving contact data is ensuring that you have the most up-to-date information from your Customers; not an easy task. On average, people in the United States will move an average of 12 times in their lifetime. United States Postal Service data indicates 14% of the population change addresses annually. As email contact has grown, it's important to note that, on average, 30% of people change their email addresses each year. This is driven by ISP or job changes, or just to stop being spammed. As people move away from home phones to primarily mobile devices, phone numbers are stabilizing as consumers maintain the same numbers through physical moves.

Keep Reading...Show less

It's a well-worn phrase by now, but it's true that the COVID-19 crisis has drastically altered the global retail landscape. Here in the Asia-Pacific region, a majority of markets are now looking past the panic of the first wave and towards the future. In this series of articles, we'll explore how grocery retailers must adapt to a more omnichannel reality to thrive in a post-pandemic world.

Keep Reading...Show less


Smarter operations and sustainable growth, powered by Customer Data Science.


Better understand and activate your Shoppers to grow sales.

Retail leaders must objectively understand how their business currently considers Customers before trying to set a more Customer-centric direction and focus. There are some formal assessment methodologies, like dunnhumby's Retail Preference Index (RPI) and Customer Centricity Assessment (CCA), which offer detailed evaluations of a business' capabilities, strengths and weaknesses based on Customer perceptions (RPI) or global best practices (CCA).

The approach outlined below is not intended to replace these formal tools; rather, these observations are intended as a kind of 'toe in the water' to help retail leaders form early hypotheses and points of views. These are rules of thumb, heuristics culled from global experience. Later, leaders might use these observations to informally check progress from time to time as a way of assessing whether the "program in the stores matches the program in our heads".

Keep Reading...Show less

In the first episode of Customer First Radio, Dave Clements, Global Head of Retail for dunnhumbyand David Ciancio, Global Head of Grocery for dunnhumby kick off the series by discussing what it means to be a truly Customer First business, share which retailers and brands today embody a Customer First mindset, and examine how Customer First materialized during the pandemic with retailers.