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Darla Moore School of Business

Panic Buying During COVID-19

International business professor, student one of first to research cultural effects of COVID-19 supply chain scarcities

International business clinical professor Wolfgang Messner and IB undergraduate student Sarah E. Payson were among the first researchers to examine the cultural context of consumer panic buying that occurred around the globe at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The uncertainty of the pandemic combined with the supply chain constraints online and in stores caused many households to stockpile food, bottled water and household products like disinfectant, hand sanitizers and toilet paper. Stockpiling necessities creates a scarcity feeling for others who, in turn, then feel a need to immediately purchase such items.

Published research:

“Effects of National Culture on the Extent of Panic Buying during the COVID-19 Outbreak”Journal of International Consumer Marketing, August 2021.

Why it matters:

  • International research on consumer panic buying is basically non-existent in the consumer behavior literature. Messner and Payson’s research determined that a large-scale event like the COVID-19 pandemic can create more panic buying in individualistic countries, i.e., U.S., Australia and U.K., versus collectivistic ones, i.e., India, Peru and Thailand. Panic buying and stockpiling necessities exacerbates the supply chain shortages and can prevent individuals from being able to purchase items they may actually and immediately need.
  • Panic buying is problematic because our food distribution systems are designed around just-in-time processes designed for normal demand levels. If there’s a sudden spike in demand, such as through panic buying, this results in dire out-of-stock situations.
  • If one stockpiles personal protective equipment like masks or sanitizers, beyond what is really necessary for an immediate need, that affects how much of PPE material is available for others to protect themselves.
  • People in cultures who are more likely to feel threatened by unknown situations like to have control over their environment, so a pandemic clearly causes them stress. Fear triggers behaviors, and in the context of a pandemic, this includes a desire to act. Thus, panic buying is a remedial response to bringing back this feeling of control. There’s even a biological explanation to it. Stress generates the production of cortisol in our body, which is a stress hormone. Prior research has shown a positive correlation of increased cortisol with increased hoarding behavior.

Research design:

  • Using Google mobility data from 132 countries around the time the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, Messner and Payson examined the increase in the number and length of visits to grocery stores and pharmacies compared to a pre-pandemic baseline as an approximate measure for panic buying. Representing a sample of Google users, the mobility reports are calculated based on Google account holders who have opted in to sharing their location history.
  • They then analyzed the occurrence of panic buying in different countries with respect to characteristics of national culture and controlled for other contextual factors.
  • They found that people from countries characterized by higher levels of individualism, equal power distributions and comfort with unstructured situations typically exhibited more panic buying behavior.

Learn more about Wolfgang Messner’s research.

About Wolfgang Messner:

  • Messner arrived at the Moore School in 2016 and is currently a clinical professor in the Sonoco International Business Department.
  • His recent research focuses on issues of global marketing, health inequalities and the measurement of cultural differences.
  • Messner teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on data analytics for international business research and management consulting in a global environment.
  • He earned his bachelor’s and master's degree in computing science from the Technical University in Munich, Germany. Messner also received an MBA in financial management from the University of Wales in the United Kingdom and a Ph.D. in economics and social sciences from the University of Kassel in Germany.

About Sarah E. Payson:

  • Payson is triple majoring in finance, international business and management and will graduate from the Moore School in May 2022.
  • She is part of the International Business Education Alliance cohort and has studied at USC, the ESSEC Business School in Singapore, the Escola Brasileira de Administração Pública e de Empresas in Brazil and the University of Mannheim in Germany.
  • After graduation, Payson will begin working with McKinsey in their Charlotte, North Carolina, office as a business analyst.

Ongoing research:

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