Man in supermarket buying toilet paper


Panic Buying Amid COVID-19 Fears

April 2, 2020

Colleen Kirk

Colleen Kirk

Finding things like toilet paper or hand sanitizer has suddenly become more challenging in recent weeks. The impact of COVID-19 has fueled shoppers to stock-up, panic buy, and leave shelves bare at many stores. Colleen Kirk, M.B.A., D.P.S., associate professor of marketing in NYIT School of Management, has studied the psychology behind territorial shopping. Kirk, who has been featured in many publications, including an op-ed in Harvard Business Review, offers insight on what causes consumers to demonstrate territorial behavior.

Why do people resort to “extreme buying” during a pandemic?
Panic buying allows consumers to feel a sense of control. Humans have a strong intrinsic need for control. However, many aspects of our lives are random chance—simply good or bad luck. In this case, people engage in secondary control processes. This means that we try to control other things about our environment, helping to give us an illusion of control. So we can’t control the virus, but stocking up, or over-stocking, on supplies helps us re-establish a feeling of control in our lives.

Scarcity cues, such as a temporarily empty shelf of toilet paper, are also related to control. Whether we think they are rational or not, these cues can trigger a feeling of a loss of control. So we will try to increase our control in other areas of our lives, either by driving 30 miles to buy extra toilet paper, or even by overeating.

Why do consumers feel ownership over certain products?
Have you ever felt as if another driver stole your parking spot, or were upset when someone else nabbed the last sweater that you had your eye on? If so, you experienced psychological ownership. You can feel psychological ownership over pretty much anything that doesn’t belong to you, from the last chocolate truffle in a display case to the dream home you found on Zillow, and even intangible things like ideas.

Are there certain instances that create or enhance psychological ownership?
Some factors that foster psychological ownership can be as simple as putting an item in your shopping cart, whether physical or virtually online, or a nostalgic connection to a product. Let’s say you grew up with a certain product or brand, have always used it or have a special or unique way of using it, the odds are good you feel psychological ownership over it.

We often take ownership of a thing or service in our minds before we actually give up the cash that makes it legally ours. It also makes us more likely to brag about our purchases, valuable word-of-mouth advertising for those products.

What can marketers learn from territorial behavior?
Marketers need to be aware of these issues because their actions and words might unknowingly elicit negative feelings associated with infringement. It’s not always a bad thing to have competing consumers who feel ownership or a strong connection with a product or your brand. Our research shows that shoppers who are competitive or a little territorial are actually more likely to go posting a selfie to defend their territory.

But in general, marketers should provide ways for consumers to protect their psychologically owned items prior to purchase. For instance, at a grocery store, a separator bar, no matter how flimsy, helps shoppers feel “their” items are separate from someone else’s. Another solution could be to offer shoppers bags to hold the items they’re considering.

Our research also shows that individuals who are more self-centered, such as those higher in narcissism, tend to behave more territorially. So policies that some grocery stores have implemented, for example limiting purchases of scarce items to one to two per customer, not only help reduce stockouts, but may also help to refocus consumers on the needs of others. This can help reduce territorial behavior in all of us.