KINGSTON, R.I. – May 22, 2020 – Toilet paper is the media’s poster child for excessive stockpiling during the COVID-19 pandemic. Months into the crisis, panicked buyers are still stripping grocery store shelves, stockpiling an item seemingly useless in a health emergency and stressing the limits of the supply chain to meet demand for other consumers.
If you’re asking yourself why some buyers react this way, you’re not alone. Mehdi Hossain, a University of Rhode Island assistant professor of marketing, is asking the same question – in a more formal way.
Backed by a $135,825 grant from the National Science Foundation, Hossain is researching the phenomenon of panic buying and stockpiling – amid the coronavirus crisis – to try to get at the psychological roots of excessive stockpiling. The study, which is expected to be completed in September, will develop messaging to mitigate the consumer behavior now and for future crises.
“This has to be studied during the pandemic because of the uniqueness of this crisis in order to find the logical factors that are contributing to panic buying,” says Hossain. “There are some commonalities across crises, but every situation has its own uniqueness. If you think about the previous crises in this decade, this pandemic is different. The virus has spread at such a faster rate. We are all being put in an uncertain situation. We feel we are not in control and we are trying to regain control of our lives.”
That anxiety over COVID-19 has caused stockpiling of numerous goods – such as hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and canned foods – fostering a worldwide problem that is more than just an inconvenience for consumers. It has resulted in vast shortages that have inflated consumers’ costs and created a scarcity of needed supplies for first responders.
For Hossain, whose primary research focuses on consumer decision making, the study is a natural way to use his expertise to contribute.
“This time is unprecedented and everybody is contributing to fight this pandemic with the skillset they can offer. Studying the phenomenon of panic buying is the skillset that I can offer,” he says. “If we can get to the root of it, we can offer a solution to prepare us for the next pandemic-like event.”
Hossain’s research will try to identify the psychological factors predominant among consumers who are stockpiling goods and frame public communications that can be disbursed through the media, government officials, and the marketplace during crises to mitigate the factors that trigger panic buying.
Through partnering with a participant sourcing platform, Hossain is conducting a nationwide, online survey of about 2,750 consumers, collecting their consumption history over the past few months and comparing it with a list of more than 50 products linked to excessive stockpiling during the pandemic. The list includes household necessities such as toilet paper and disinfecting wipes and grocery items such as canned and frozen foods and milk, bread and eggs.
“They will report for each of the items. Did they buy more than usual or significantly more than usual. We’ll measure stockpiling in different ways,” he says. “Another section of the survey will collect psychological traits that will tell us various factors that have been predominant. We will analyze that data to see which one correlates strongly with their stockpiling tendency.”
The findings will be used to develop communication materials that will be tested for their effects on behaviors of respondents over several more weeks of shopping.
“One thing that we study a lot is framing communication that can actually influence your psychology and determine your behavior,” Hossain says. “In my research in the past, I’ve studied consumer donation behavior. I framed the solicitation material in certain ways and that led people to donate to certain causes and not to others. Through framing of communication, you can create a mindset that can actually influence psychological factors and impact decision making in the short term.”
Through the research on panic buying and excessive stockpiling, Hossain expects a predominant factor among consumers will be the feeling that they have lost control of their lives. One reason, he says, is the inundation of information people have experienced during the pandemic, including messaging through social media, news media, and medical experts about what to do and not do.
And that’s the way to turn this around, he says.
“We are getting communications from many different sources. But if all these sources are telling us ‘you are not out of control, you can regain control, don’t panic,’ it can minimize the psychological factors,” Hossain says. “Our plan is to generate this knowledge, put it out there and prescribe how different sources can use the message.”
In landing the NSF grant, Hossain recognized the contributions of the University’s Office of Research and Development and Research Integrity. “It is amazing how the research office, sponsored projects and the institutional review board work in the background,” he says. “It’s amazing how helpful they are and the lengths they go to help us meet our deadlines. This support is critical so it’s very important to acknowledge the work they provide.”