Resist the Urge to Panic Shop

Few if any of us are counting on the ready availability of Italian wines or French cheeses. So we really have nothing to fear from the ongoing coronavirus precautions’ negative effect on the availability of such specialties.

As to the overwhelming majority of food products, household and sanitary items used by most people, the biggest cause of fear is … well, fear itself.

Unfortunately, as the coronavirus situation became more urgent, and restrictions on social gatherings and personal distance were responsibly put into place by authorities and zealously conveyed by media, panic buying, expectedly, ensued.

Such rushing to stock up on items that people imagine will not be readily available in the future is characterized by scientists as a form of “herd behavior” — the sort of mindless action that is observed mainly among frightened animals but also in the human realm — from the mass adoption of meaningless fads to acts of violence by angry mobs. All it takes is for one or two individuals to act irrationally, leading groundless perceptions of need to spread quickly to others nearby, and from them to yet others farther out from the epicenter.

Ironically, panic buying can lead to actual shortages, becoming a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.

We have indeed seen that in recent weeks, in empty supermarket shelves and in shopping carts filled to overflow with multiple packages of the same items. Canned goods and cereals, as well as perishable staples like milk, meat and bread, were quickly snapped up. Things like hand sanitizer — which, as it happens, is an inferior means for killing germs to simple soap and water — were sold out in many stores, and offered at wildly inflated prices by opportunistic entrepreneurs.

And the sight of such things only promoted yet more of the same behavior that caused it.

But there was never any shortage of most items to begin with, and no interruption of manufacturing or transport of food or domestic needs. Some specialty items imported from abroad, like those Italian wines and French cheeses, were affected by federal commerce policies put in place during the crisis, but fresh produce, meat, milk and household items were never in jeopardy. Some may have disappeared temporarily from shelves, but that was due to hoarders, not actual product shortages.

Major supermarket chains and retailers have networks that stretch into suppliers all over the world. Experts have assured the public that the food system can deal with the current demand.

The food supply chain is built to be ready for some disruption; cushioning for problems is built into the system. A bad crop yield or a factory fire can force retailers to change suppliers or stock alternative products. Such things are not unusual and most consumers are unaware of the not infrequent disturbances of the norm. When they occur, we notice no change in what the supermarket offers us.

Currently, retailers are moving quickly to restock their shelves. As Hamodia reported last week, grocers are also hiring more workers, paying overtime and limiting purchases on certain high demand items.

Amazon, we also reported, is hiring 100,000 people across the U.S. to keep up with a crush of orders as more people stay at home and shop online. It will also temporarily raise pay by $2 an hour through the end of April for hourly employees.

What’s more, as we noted too, to help ease the bottleneck in the supply pipeline, the federal government has suspended rules that limit the number of hours that truckers can drive.

The unknowns about the future as we endure the current — and hopefully, soon to be past — health crisis are many.

The effects of the hoarding itself, for instance. People only need so much of household items or shelf-stable goods. Eventually, when those who stocked up on products start dipping into their hoards rather than shopping for their needs as in the past, demand for some products could fall precipitously. The effect of that on manufacturers that hired more employees or opened new facilities could cause problems. Such swings in inventory in response to shifts in customer demand, as in the case of panic buying, even has a name: the “bullwhip effect.”

There is, of course, always a possibility that the supply chain, which relies on farmers, factories, packaging producers, transportation, wholesale and retail workers, could be disrupted by the spread and effect of the new coronavirus.

But that has not happened, and there is no evidence that it is in the offing.

So the wise thing to do — both for our own mental health and for the good of society at large — is to simply, as in the past, buy what we need and resist the urge to join any new herd of panic shoppers.