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COVID-19 has increased consumers' hoarding habits, study finds

Experts are interested in understanding why the pandemic has so drastically changed consumers’ buying habits

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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have been stocking up on food and supplies. This has led to shortages of necessary items and a push by regulators to get people to cease these hoarding habits. 

Now, researchers from the University of Technology Sydney are diving deeper into the psychology behind the ways the pandemic has turned many consumers into hoarders and shifted overall spending habits. 

“Evolved instincts dominate in stressful situations, as a response to panic and anxiety,” said researcher Michelle Baddeley. “During times of stress and deprivation, not only people but also many animals show a propensity to hoard.” 

The psychology behind hoarding

The researchers assessed current levels of hoarding from several different points of view, all with the intention of understanding why this trend among consumers has emerged since the start of the pandemic. While many factors come into play, the innate desire to follow others’ behaviors and a general sense of fear are two major influences that have affected consumers’ shopping trends in recent months. 

Once trends start to emerge -- especially in times of uncertainty -- consumers tend to follow what others are doing. This is how grocery store shelves end up empty and homes are stockpiled with various goods; consumers don’t want to feel left out or that they’re missing something. 

“When other people’s choices might be a useful source of information, we use a herding heuristic and follow them because we believe they have good reasons for their actions,” Baddeley explained. “We might choose to eat a busy restaurant because we assume the other diners know it is a good place to eat. However, numerous experiments from social psychology also show that we can be blindly susceptible to the influence of others. So when we see others rushing to the shops to buy toilet paper, we fear missing out and follow the herd.” 

In addition to hoarding products like toilet paper or cleaning supplies, the pandemic has changed the way many consumers think about spending and saving money. The researchers explained that many of these decisions come from fear, but they have long-standing implications. 

“In economics, hoarding is often explored in the context of savings,” said Baddely. “When consumer confidence is down, spending drops and households increase their savings if they can, because they expect bad times ahead.” 

Being prepared for the future

These findings highlight the ways that spending habits have been affected by the pandemic, and the researchers hope that lawmakers can use these results to help guide consumers away from fear-based efforts and towards more positive actions. 

“Understanding these economic, social, and psychological responses to COVID-19 can help governments and policymakers adapt their policies to limit negative impacts, and nudge us towards better health and economic outcomes,” said Baddeley. 

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