Pingdemic: How to reduce the temptation to panic buy amid food shortage fears

'Think about the people who can't afford to stockpile things and try to find the gracious, generous, calmer part of ourselves and act from there’

A rise in the number of retail staff having to self-isolate after being pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app is beginning to affect the number of products available in some supermarkets, according to some retailers.

Following a warning from Marks & Spencer that it may have to reduce its opening hours due to staff shortages as a result of pings, and Iceland also announcing that it will not be able to open some stores, photographs of empty shelves due to lack of staff have been circulating online.

Both the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Department for Business have urged the public not to panic. “What is the most important thing is that people don’t panic because there’s no need to panic, because there’s plenty of food in the country,” Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC told BBC Breakfast.

Supermarkets have also stressed that shortages of food are not widespread and are being dealt with quickly.

Iceland boss, Richard Walker, told the BBC that empty shelves in its stores are “isolated incidents”, Co-op said it was only “running low on some products”, and Sainsbury’s said it “might not always” have the exact products people want, its stores are still receiving large deliveries.

“While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them onto the shelves as quickly as they can,” a Sainsbury’s spokesperson told Reuters.

As the news of shortages spreads, the public may once again face the temptation to buy more items than they need. Consumer psychologist Kate Nightingale, founder of Style Psychology, says our impulse to buy what we don't need is driven by loss aversion or FOMO (fear of missing out).

"It’s the idea that you can lose something you don't actually have," she tells The Independent. "The potential of pain or loss is sometimes too great to not act upon."

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Andrew Iles, of Priory’s Oxford Wellbeing Centre, says, “But panic buying is generally unnecessary in this country and unhelpful to everyone."

Why do people panic buy?

This desire to buy more is heightened when we are emotional, tired, stressed, under the influence of alcohol or when we’re sleep-deprived. “Unfortunately, all of us have experienced at least one of these states very often this year,” says Nightingale.

Dr. Iles agrees: “There is the potential to ‘trip’ into a panic where all rational thinking and reasoning is overpowered. For some people, shopping is the medicine to fear and a temporary comfort from stress, anxiety – and even loneliness."

Many of us have felt we have less control our own lives due to the pandemic, shopping restrictions, and uncertainties such as Brexit. All of these things “create very fertile circumstances for impulse and panic buying”, says Nightingale.

Although we are all experiencing similar things during the pandemic, Covid-19 has made most of us feel increasingly isolated from each other, and panic buying is a symptom of this. Psychotherapist Kimcha Rajkumar believes the fear that plays a big part in stockpiling only serves to isolate us further from the rest of society. "Fear of there not being enough makes us disconnect from a sense of belonging to a wider community and just think about ourselves and those closest to us," she says. 

"We all have been frightened, to varying degrees, for a very long time," says Rajkumar. "This latest situation is coming on the back of months of unfamiliar, unpredictable experience that has no clear path out. Our sense of being under threat has been unremitting. The rational calm part of ourselves is not as readily to hand as it might have been before."

How can we curb the urge to fill up our trollies?

Deep down we know we don't need 15 packets of broccoli –  more than we could possibly eat, before it rots. Rajkumar says it's more important than ever to resist the urge to act as individuals. 

"We need to remind ourselves that we are connected," she says. "There is an invisible network of people working together to make things like postal deliveries, electricity, rubbish collection happen. We are part of this web.

"Take a moment, sit quietly and think of everyone who lives on your street, your tower block, the school your kids go to, etc. Think about the people who can't afford to stockpile things and try to find the gracious, generous, calmer part of ourselves and act from there."

Exercise and meditation are both practical and effective ways to curb the urge to panic purchase. "Both are scientifically proven to reduce impulse buying and increase overall sense of control over our lives. So, we are in a better place we might think," says Nightingale.

If the recent news about potential food shortages is making you tempted to stockpile "distract yourself", says Nightingale. "Do something else. Be with your family or pets," and try meditation "or at least breathing deeply. It reduces your arousal (a state if intense readiness) and allows your conscious mind to have a voice rather than you following your subconscious urges”.

What if you have already stockpiled?

If you've been unable to resist the urge to panic buy, and know you're not going to consume everything you've bought in time, don't let perishables go off, or medicines go out of date, instead connect with your community. Ask neighbours if they need anything, "give some of your extra shopping to an elderly neighbour, a single parent, a homeless person or a foodbank", says Rajkumar.

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