Rising COVID-19 cases may result in panic purchasing again

January 15, 2021

In March 2020, seeing a Costco checkout line wrap two times around the store was common. The shelves of fresh produce and essential products had been emptied by other customers. The toilet paper shortages and hoarders became punchlines to jokes about panic purchasing, but became a stark reality when one entered a store and saw the cleaning supply section cleared.

Even with the announcement of a vaccine, COVID-19 cases continue to rise, and there is a possibility that panic purchasing will ensue. Even now, employees are noticing a shortage of essential products. 

The first wave of stockpiling in the spring was driven by the uncertainty of the future. 

Chicago resident Susie Korhorn said, “I started getting panicky when I was just regular shopping, and I noticed that the shelves were getting scarce on my everyday things.” 

Mrs. Korhorn stocked up on essentials: toilet paper, cleaning supplies, bottled water and non-perishable food items.

Similarly, in late February 2020, Colorado resident Tim Hopkins stocked up on 30 gallons of water, cases of vegetables and extra propane. He said he was one of the first to do so, citing that the bleak newscasts at the time drove him and his family to stockpile in case of an emergency.

The toilet paper was the number one thing. Cleaning supplies got wiped out, canned food, soup, everything. The store was empty, and it was pretty amazing.

— Michael Kinnavy

Store employee Michael Kinnavy of Kramer Foods in Hinsdale corroborated the stockpiling narrative in the spring. 

He added, “The toilet paper was the number one thing. Cleaning supplies got wiped out, canned food, soup, everything. The store was empty, and it was pretty amazing.” 

Mr. Kinnavy has already noticed toilet paper coming off the shelves again at an alarming rate. As a result, he had to reinstate a limit on toilet paper purchases at his store.

Mr. Kinnavy’s predicament is already showing that in the face of a COVID-19 resurgence this winter, past panic purchasers may choose to stockpile again given the possibility of a shortage of essential products. Mrs. Korhorn and Mr. Hopkins believe they would stockpile again. Mr. Hopkins said he already stockpiled before the 2020 election results came out in fear of political turmoil. 

Regarding the effects of panic purchasing, Professor Constantine Yannelis of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business said, “Supply chains are not set up to accommodate everyone buying a six-month-supply at once. This panic can feed upon itself. If people go to the store and see empty shelves, it’s truly unnerving.” 

Even so, he remains confident that the vaccine will encourage less stockpiling.  

“The most important thing in terms of preventing panic buying is to manage people’s expectations and to let people know that the supply chain is going to be maintained,” Professor Yannelis said.

The haste in which the vaccine has been produced has the potential to cause waves of panic in Americans, easily escalating many into panic purchasing behaviors. Everyone wants to protect their families and secure their well-being by stockpiling resources, but that behavior, if undertaken by many, can easily lead to another shortage of essential supplies. 


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