If you’ve been to the grocery store in the past two months, you’ve probably struggled to find a few key items – everyday staples like toilet paper, flour, and canned goods to name a few.

We wanted to find out how the panic buying frenzy has changed American shopping habits to determine how the public will respond the next time there’s a national crisis.

We conducted a study of over 3,000 respondents using Google Surveys. Here’s what we found.

Key takeaways:

  • 72% of people were unprepared for emergencies before COVID-19.
  • 66% of people are still unprepared for emergencies, in spite of the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Panic buying has certainly crippled the supply of essential goods across the country, but what are we doing to change this behavior now that we know it’s happening, and are we preventing it from happening again? 

The Psychology Behind Panic Buying 

To answer that question, it’s important to understand the factors that cause a panic buying phenomena.

According to this article on the subject published in the Journal of Manufacturing and Service Operations Management, consumers begin to purchase unusually large quantities of goods when prices are artificially low, when consumers are acting to avoid risk, and, most importantly to the current situation, when consumers are uncertain they’ll be able to access the product in the future. 

Fear is a powerful motivator for consumers and not knowing if you’ll be able to buy food the next time you visit the store is certainly scary, but the consequences of panic buying could be just as alarming. 

72% of Americans Were Unprepared for an Emergency Before COVID-19

The Department of Homeland Security recommends that every household have a supply kit to last at least 72 hours in the event of any emergency – not just the coronavirus. The kit includes things like nonperishable foods, water, a flashlight, and first aid kit to name a few.

We used Google Surveys to analyze data from over 1,000 American respondents to see if they had this supply kit on hand before the coronavirus became prevalent. The results, while alarming, aren’t all that surprising. 

A staggering 72 percent of Americans didn’t have an emergency kit as recommended by the Department of Homeland Security. While no one could have prepared sufficiently for the COVID-19 pandemic, this speaks volumes to the general lack of preparedness Americans display when it comes to emergency situations and disasters and shows that being unprepared could be a direct cause of panic buying behavior. 

While Americans clearly weren’t prepared for any kind of emergency prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, you’d think that by now, people would have begun taking steps to procure an emergency kit for their households. 

However, our data suggests while Americans certainly stocked up once COVID-19 arose, they didn’t necessarily purchase the items recommended by officials. In fact, 25 percent of respondents said they purchased daily need items like toilet paper and frozen meals when COVID-19 became prevalent in their communities, while fewer than 15 percent of respondents said they purchased preventative care items like first aid supplies, medicine, and face masks. These findings are directly in line with the widespread shortage of paper goods and certain food items we now see in stores across the country. 

66% of Americans Are Still Unprepared for an Emergency

We asked our respondents if they prepared an emergency kit with essentials like first aid supplies and food after COVID-19 became an emergency – 66 percent still said no.

It’s no secret that there’s been controversy, confusion, and disagreement over the best way to handle the coronavirus pandemic. From conflicting recommendations on the effectiveness of face masks to the various levels of lockdown implemented by different states, Americans have gone without a clear set of directions in these unprecedented times. 

Despite the confusion, the fact that only 6 percent more Americans are prepared for an emergency now that the coronavirus outbreak is prevalent is incredibly alarming. Further, it suggests that we haven’t yet learned from our mistakes and despite the fact that the panic buying phenomena is now subsiding in certain places, the same problems could arise the next time there is a national crisis.

Survey Methodology

This study consisted of three questions conducted by Coupon Chief through Google Surveys. The sample consisted of no less than 1,000 completed responses per question. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure an accurate and reliable representation of the total population. The survey ran on April 10, 2020.

The Bottom Line

Panic buying is a very real and dangerous phenomena – it occurs largely as a result of consumers’ perceptions of the future availability of goods, as well as the fear that these goods may become unavailable.

During the coronavirus pandemic and other extenuating circumstances, it’s important to remember that the supply of essential goods like groceries and personal hygiene products is, for the most part, incredibly stable. In this case, shortages of things like toilet paper have been created artificially by a panicked consumer population. To avoid engaging in panic buying behavior, purchase only what is necessary for your household – buying in excess only exacerbates the panic buying problem.

If you’re concerned about the current availability of goods, rest assured that major retailers like Walmart are restocking weekly to alleviate these shortages and continue serving their customers. 

While this article discusses aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, it should not be used as a source for medical advice. For those seeking information about COVID-19 symptoms, treatment, or testing, please visit the CDC’s website by clicking here.


CDC | Department of Homeland Security | BBC | Psychology Today 


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