It wasn’t all that long ago that people were posting images of empty shelves in the grocery stores as well as shopping carts brimming with toilet paper. Shut-downs, sheltering, quarantining – and the fear of going without basic necessities should fear become reality -- is causing alarm, as evidenced by empty food store shelves.

According to an article in USA Today, consumers across the country are beginning to stock up again; a Boston Globe article, reporting on results from a survey, found that 60% of respondents are doing so.

Some stores are experiencing product shortages as they did in the spring, even in states like Vermont, which has low COVID infection numbers. A CNN article stated that paper towel shortages have been ongoing since the start of the COVID-19 panic. They also noted that disinfectant products like those that contain bleach will be tough to get as we enter into the next year.

During the initial COVID wave, panic and over-buying ruled. But after the coronavirus seemed under some control and related shutdowns eased, the essentials started reappearing – and staying – on shelves. However, as another wave of COVID-19 takes hold, compounded by uncertainty regarding the upcoming federal election, grocery stores are once again seeing runs on various supplies.

And once again, grocery stores are responding. Stores in Austin, Texas have started to put limits on items that were hoarded during the first wave in preparation for another. After going through the first wave in early spring, stores found they could plan more accordingly for the fall and beyond. According the Gary Huddleston, Grocery Industry Consultant for the Texas Retailers Association, retailers have focussed on improving their systems for online ordering and home delivery.

Not Just Groceries

The Boston Globe, reporting on findings from the Sports and Leisure Research Group survey, said that of the 60% who were hoarding, 56% said they were doing so because they were concerned about the current coronavirus resurge; 24% said they were hoarding because of the chaos associated with the protests against racism, and; 20% said they were concerned about the unrest related to the election.

And if those topics weren’t concerning enough, 61% of respondents said they were concerned that the US may be on the verge of a civil war. Tensions between presidential candidates have been unpalatable before, but the additional angst regarding COVID-19 has pushed stress and worry to an all time high. On example: mail-in ballots. Some see them as necessary to avoid further infections, while others question their legitimacy. According to a YouGov poll, 47% of the 1,999 registered voters questioned believe that the election will not be fair or honest.

Americans aren’t just stocking up on groceries – they’re buying guns too. According to the Boston Globe, there has been a surge in gun sales. “If I had to make a graph of sales, it would just go up in a straight line,” said gun store owner Tom Weitbrecht in the article. “The pandemic started everything, but all the other circumstances have continued it.”

Why hoard?

It’s not unusual for people to feel they need to stockpile essentials – it’s typical panic behavior during a disaster or crisis, according to correspondence in the journal Psychiatry Research. This behavior goes back to ancient times.

Panic buying may help a person feel more in control in situations that are anything but predictable and orderly. It can also help provide a feeling of security, knowing that the supplies are safe and within reach should they be needed. “A perceived sense of losing control over the environment can be responsible for [hoarding],” the authors, from Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nepal, the U.S. and the U.K, wrote. “During a crisis period, people generally like to control things and this brings them some aspect of certainty.”

This behavior may also come from a primitive part of the brain, the part that pushes humans to focus on survival -- which could push aside any rational thinking, such as knowing that the food supply chain will still flow, although maybe slower than during normal times.

The authors also noted that sometimes this behavior is due to government mistrust, and that the government may not be able to provide the necessities. This could be worsened by news and social media reports. As the 24-hour news cycle feeds constant information, some news is more sensational than others, so more people panic and react.

“In summary, fear of scarcity and losing control over the environment, insecurity (which could because of fear), social learning, exacerbation of anxiety, the basic primitive response of humans, are the core factor responsible for the panic buying phenomenon,” the authors concluded.

The take-home

Hoarding may make some people feel better about handling the current situation, but hoarding also makes it harder for others to get what they need. So as you go about your shopping, try not to overdo your purchases – as we saw during the first wave, the stores can restock their shelves and you’ll likely be able to find what you need when you need it.

Additional reporting by Ryan Canha.