Has there always been panic buying? And when have people panic shopped through history?

Despite vehement calls from governments and retailers alike for people not to stockpile, coronavirus fears are driving many people to the supermarkets to empty the shelves of supposedly essential goods, like toilet paper and tinned food. But what drives this behaviour? And have people always responded this way? Jonny Wilkes explores the history of panic buying…

Shoppers crowd a Woolworths store in 1955

The behaviour seen in cases of panic buying is – as psychologists are currently popping up on all the news outlets to explain – a very human reaction. It may not be wholly rational at times, but it is understandable. At times of an imminent disaster, such as storms or flooding, it satisfies a need to prepare for however long the problem lasts. Incases like coronavirus, when there are so many unknowns, panic buying is an extreme attempt to take back a sense of control and proactivity at a time of great anxiety.

These needs and the resulting ‘herd behaviour’ are nothing new for humanity, and history is replete with examples of panicked groups hoarding supplies. It is easy to imagine that during the Black Death in the 14th century, everyone in Europe would have felt a little more protective over their next meal.

The behaviour seen in cases of panic buying is – as psychologists are currently popping up on all the news outlets to explain – a very human reaction. It may not be wholly rational at times, but it is understandable. At times of an imminent disaster, such as storms or flooding, it satisfies a need to prepare for however long the problem lasts. Incases like coronavirus, when there are so many unknowns, panic buying is an extreme attempt to take back a sense of control and proactivity at a time of great anxiety.

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These needs and the resulting ‘herd behaviour’ are nothing new for humanity, and history is replete with examples of panicked groups hoarding supplies. It is easy to imagine that during the Black Death in the 14th century, everyone in Europe would have felt a little more protective over their next meal.

When did panic buying, as we know it, begin?

But panic buying could be seen as a relatively young phenomenon, born in the 20th century thanks to the combination of several factors: populations with expendable income; a degree of comfort among those populations, to the point of complacency, that supply and access to everyday goods would remain unbroken; and tools of widespread communication so people learn of a disaster about to hit in advance.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the tensest-of-tense Cold War standoffs precipitated by the Soviets installing nuclear weapons on Cuba, there may not have been social media to spark panic like today – but daily news reports certainly did the trick. Following US President John F Kennedy’s address to the nation on 22 October in which he informed the nation that there were Soviet missiles (located just 90 miles off the coast of Florida), Americans in major cities began stockpiling canned goods and bottled water in their basements to help see them through an attack. Unscrupulous salesmen also enjoyed a roaring (if short-lived) trade by flogging off fallout shelters to a desperate clientele.

People watch President John F Kennedy's TV announcement during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a department store. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
People watch President John F Kennedy’s TV announcement during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a department store. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Life Magazine/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

The queues of panic buyers are not always for food, however. Runs on banks, as seen in the USA at the outset of the Great Depression, are a result of people trying to stockpile currency, and whenever a crisis has hit the supply of oil in the last 50 years, it has inevitably led to long lines of cars outside petrol stations. In 1973, the members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) imposed an oil embargo on countries said to be supportive of Israel, causing the price of a barrel of crude oil to quadruple. This was repeated by a ‘second oil shock’ in 1979, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution as oil output stalled. And many in the UK will still remember the fuel shortages of the 2000s, which were caused by protests at rising petrol and diesel prices.

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Jonny Wilkes is a freelance writer specialising in history