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26th April 2021

COVID-19: The pandemic of panic buying

Empty shelves and mass hysteria: how panic buying became a side effect of COVID-19
COVID-19: The pandemic of panic buying
Photo: Dick Thomas Johnson @ Flickr

COVID-19 not only hailed in the days of social distancing, mandatory masks, and closed borders, but also a wave of mass hysteria manifested as panic buying. Shelves were left empty, toilets went paperless and hand sanitisers became the hottest commodity. 

A year on from the start of lockdown restrictions, the reality of panic buying is just a hazy nightmare. It’s easy to look back on those dark days with rolled eyes and sly smirks. But, as we sit here, well-fed by supermarkets brimming with food, we’re left with one key question: why was panic buying even a thing? 

The 3 Ps: Panic, preparation and peer pressure


When news broke of a devastating, deadly disease sweeping across the planet, the first response of any sane person was to panic. Panic about your health, the government’s response, and how you’d survive the zombie apocalypse. But most importantly, panic about what you could do to help.

However, in the case of COVID-19, your average Brit couldn’t just head down to the lab to help find a vaccine. Or walk into A&E and start chest compressions. No, instead, all we had to do was stay home and wash our hands. Our safety was almost entirely out of our control. And yet, one thing was left in our control: what was in our cupboards. 

According to behavioural economist David Savage, people panic buy as a way to feel in control during an out-of-control situation. Having a well-stocked pantry and the knowledge that your family can be fed for at least the next month helps keep people’s minds at ease. It is a normal, predictable human response, especially at the start of a disaster, when little is known about the situation. 

Panic-buying was at its peak at the beginning of the pandemic when knowledge of COVID-19 was sparse. On the 14th of March 2020, a week before lockdown began, non-perishable food purchases shot up by 80% compared to January and February’s daily averages. The sale of household items, such as toilet paper and soap, also rose by 70%. But, as people learnt more about the virus, and zombies were yet to appear, panic died down and our shopping habits eventually settled.


Panic-buying, whilst not special to the COVID-19 crisis, lent itself well to the unique self-isolation requirements. If a person found themselves potentially infected by COVID-19, they needed to stay at home for 14 days. Trips to the supermarket became illegal, and food delivery slots were scarce. In order to be prepared for this people bought enough supplies to last for two weeks (or, let’s be real, often longer) because when you self isolate, you’ll be bored and lonely, but there’s no reason to be hungry too.

Peer pressure

When pictures of empty shelves and trolleys full of pasta are splashed across the front page, it’s hard to stay calm and reasonable. If everyone is stockpiling supplies, shouldn’t I be too?

Panic-buying wasn’t isolated to just a few extreme individuals. According to a November 2020 study, supply shortages were caused by many different households buying more items than they usually would. So clearly, even the calmest and most collected in society were swayed by rumours of soap shortages and food rationing. 

But ultimately, what else was there to do?

Need somewhere to take restless children? A special location for a date night surprise? The perfect venue for Mum’s 50th birthday? Why, the supermarket, of course!

With restaurants and non-essential shops closed, schools left empty and workplaces abandoned, there was one haven left open: the supermarket. Essential workers aside, many people were left with little to do and no place to go. A shopping trip to the supermarket was the highlight of most people’s weeks. And a shopping trip where you had to fend off adversaries and fight for the last toilet roll? Even better!

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