COVID panic buying 2.0?

By Tim Wilkinson

With additional national restrictions, rising cases of Covid-19 and the prospect of a potential second lockdown, one has to wonder what the effect of additional restrictions might have on the food system.

Signs in the supermarket read “be considerate while shopping”. While such imperatives are now a familiar part of the retail messaging, in the last week the emphasis on customer behaviour has once again been in the news. Retailers have been urging customers not just to be considerate while shopping, but to refrain from so-called ‘panic buying’.  There have been reports of fears of panic buying and rumours of stockpiling in the last few days, but so far it seems the supermarket aisle scenes of March 2020 have not been repeated. I noticed that several online news outlets reporting on panic buying and stockpiling, used images of empty shelves with captions saying the images were from March 2020. I’m sure there have been empty shelves in September and while it is natural to recall empty shelves in March, it seemed unhelpful to include these images in reports of potential stockpiling in the last week. Circulating fears and rumours of panic buying seem to me to be part of the cycle that create temporary shortages. Anyway, beside the morality of online news outlets image selection, I think it is interesting how sensitised both consumers and the media now are to stocking levels in supermarkets. Among other things, I think it shows how habituated we were to fully stocked supermarkets before the pandemic. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the supermarket now, I don’t expect to be always find what I want, in stock.

Our collective experiences of buying food over the last 6 months, seem likely to be the reason why, 66% of respondents to a YouGov poll this week said they are worried about the impact of a second wave on UK food supplies.  As we know, one way that consumers managed the impact of Covid on the food supply chain in March and April, was to shift towards local, independent shops. A Twitter thread  we came across this week, suggests that some small businesses who had new customers as a result of the first lockdown feel let down that consumers shifted back to the supermarkets over the summer. Comments from consumers show that some people felt they could afford to shop locally during the lockdown as they were saving money on not going out etc., but as these opportunities have returned, the perceived cost saving at supermarkets has become more appealing. Consumer’s old habits returned. The thread implies that some business owners have mixed feelings about customers returning to their shops if there is a second lockdown – there would be the financial benefit of course, but this is tinged with the disappointment and frustration of feeling dropped by customers who shopped with them earlier in the year. One wonders, what the impact of new restrictions and a potential second lockdown might have on local shops.

With pubs and restaurants now closing earlier, what and where people eat may well change. But how? Will the nation return to the home baking and scratch cooking we saw in March and April, or have many people found alternative interests and activities that can be done at home? Will comfort foods, bought in large volumes in March and April, be as popular if there is a second lockdown, or have we collectively found a healthier way of managing anxiety about the pandemic?  Have opportunities to eat to help out in August re-ignited consumers love for restaurant food enough to retain rising levels of out of home eating? Will more people order takeaways now that many businesses have improved their online platforms and delivery processes? Will the rise in food box meals change? I don’t have answers to all these questions, but it feels to me that many people have found a new normal in terms of the way they want to shop for food and what they want to eat. We will undoubtedly see some trends consolidating and accelerating, and of course new developments emerging. And how we collectively choose to be considerate while shopping remains to be seen.

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