Some of the memorable images of the COVID-19 pandemic were pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets, as shoppers panic bought in response to public health restrictions. Here in Australia, we’ve seen the country go in and out of major restrictions over the past couple of years, with panic buying occurring almost every time restrictions were announced. More recently, we’ve also seen panic buying of fuel in the US and the UK, with recent bouts driven by the conflict in Ukraine.
Of course, panic buying is, at its core, a behavioural problem with a range of behavioural drivers. These drivers can include perceptions of scarcity, a need to take control in an uncertain situation, and wider psychosocial factors. But while there’s a lot of research about what causes panic buying, there’s relatively little out there about what we can actually do to reduce panic buying.
The Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions wanted to understand what could be done to reduce panic buying. They were concerned that panic buying disproportionately impacts vulnerable people, in addition to disrupting supply chains and causing frustration for everyone.
To explore solutions, the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions commissioned us to conduct an online randomised control trial across Australia. We showed participants a scenario where they’d just read the news about significant COVID-19 restrictions being introduced in their state. Participants were randomised so that the scenario included a message at the end, corresponding to one of four treatments. We developed some potential messages that the literature suggested could have an impact on panic buying:
|Appeal to morals |
|“If you’re greedy and buy more than you need at the supermarket, there will be gaps on shelves and the state’s most vulnerable people will miss out.”|
|Combatting scarcity |
|“Australia produces three times as much food as it consumes. We’re not going to run out so please buy only what you need at the supermarket.”|
|Norms + reciprocity||“To help your family and your community, please buy only what you need and think of others when you shop at the supermarket. Most people do the right thing.”|
Importantly, we included a control condition that had no message as we were worried about the potential for a “backfire effect” – that is, any communication that sought to correct misperceptions about panic buying could inadvertently increase people’s propensity to panic buy, by reminding them that it was a potential issue!
We then asked people about their intentions to increase their purchasing of several categories of products in response to the scenario. Participants responded on a 1-7 scale, where 1 = “I’d want to buy a lot less”, 4 = “No change”, and 7 = “I’d want to buy a lot more”. As you can see below, the appeal to morals message led to a small but statistically significant reduction in intentions to panic buy.
That’s a great result in and of itself – but of course, you’re not reading the Intention Insights Team blog, you’re reading the Behavioural Insights Team blog. There are many aspects of life for which people often don’t follow through with their stated intentions (e.g. diet, exercise, new year’s resolutions, learning new languages, etc.). So, we put together a behavioural decision task to really see whether the messages could shift behaviour.
In our trial, that translated to reminding our participants of the scenario, and asking them to pick a product, and asking how much they would need for 2 weeks at home. We considered this as a participant’s “baseline” amount – all that they needed. After this, participants were given the option to either choose to purchase more than their baseline (which represents panic buying), or the same (or less than) the amount they selected as their baseline (which represents not panic buying). Participants were told that they could earn an additional payment depending on their choice and the choices of others – these additional payments were structured to reflect the payoffs for a prisoner’s dilemma.
That meant the best outcome overall was for everyone to not panic buy, but participants could earn even more on an individual level if they decided to panic buy. In essence, this incentive structure pits the common good against an individual’s own interests – much like panic buying. The treatment message was repeated before they made their choice.
As you can see, there was a large and significant reduction in simulated panic buying behaviour from both the appeal to morals and norms + reciprocity message. Both results are interesting – the appeal to morals message reduces both intentions and behaviour, suggesting that there’s something very powerful about making a strong moral appeal. In contrast, the norms + reciprocity message doesn’t seem to affect intentions at all, but it has a very big impact on behaviour – this is not uncommon, as we often underestimate how powerful social influences can be on our behaviour.
It’s also interesting that our results suggest that it’s really only a minority of people that actually panic buy – this is consistent with what we found when we asked people about their past panic buying behaviour, and is also consistent with international evidence. This means there’s a role for governments and the media to make it clear that most people do the right thing, to dispel stories that may create a false impression that panic buying is a widespread phenomenon.
The Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions is incorporating these findings into its messaging. We also know that panic buying can spread quickly, so the Department is giving other jurisdictions and stakeholders an opportunity to consider how to include these findings in their messaging.
This is a really exciting result – we’re not aware of other research that has tried to address panic buying in this way. There’s also a lot more to learn – for example, are there other messages that we can use that will also shift simulated panic buying behaviour? Does the effectiveness of the message vary depending on the messenger? Can we use messages to target specific products? Would the results change if participants repeated the behavioural decision task multiple times? If you’re interested in these questions and want to work with us to find more ways to combat panic buying, or are facing other thorny consumer behaviour challenges, contact Ravi Dutta-Powell.