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Reduced feeling of security leads to instinctive self-preservation, which includes panic buying, expert says

Indiana University
13-Mar-2020 9:55 AM EDT, by Indiana University

Jon Quinn, lecturer in marketing at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business, who has served in senior marketing positions in the financial and food services industries, explains why many Americans -- in response to concerns over COVID-19 -- may be unnecessarily hoarding supplies and seeking comfort through retail shopping:

“The pandemic and the constant reporting of it is creating a significant threat and disruption to consumers’ perceived control over their daily lives, similar to a hurricane. This leads to a reduced feeling of security and well-being, driving us downward in our hierarchy of needs. When this happens, we rely more on our instinctive behaviors of self-preservation.  We cease thinking logically and think and act more impulsively or even primitively.

“As consumers, we have been conditioned to address problems and challenges by consumption-based solutions. We need to restore some sense of control and security, so we look for consumption-based solutions. In cases such as coming natural disasters or a pandemic, those solutions are everyday staples and items specific to protecting ourselves from the specific threat."

What should we do? Quinn says, “In a situation like this, retailers have to act with the greater good of society in mind. However, acting in such a way is also in their own best interest in the long-term. Putting quantity limits on products that are being purchased out of panic is the right thing to do, but retailers need to do a better job at explaining why. They can do this through social media, point-of-purchase and public relations.

“This is an opportunity for retailers to build or fortify trust and loyalty and they can do that through dependability – avoiding stock outages as much as possible – as well as open and timely communication (explaining unit purchase limits) and accurately managing customer expectations (if they are out of stock, when will the items be back in stock).

“Consumers should resist the natural and conditioned impulses and think logically. The greater the proportion of society that is protected, the greater the likelihood the spread will be contained and the greater the likelihood you and those close to you can remain healthy. Consumption will not make you safer.

“Consumers will respond better if the media identified society-benefitting behaviors and demonstrated them by how these behaviors will benefit them personally. I have not seen such a message widely disseminated – but it needs to be.”

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