After weeks of empty physical and digital shelves, the panic-buying phase of the coronavirus pandemic appears to be over.
Instead, U.S. consumers have shifted to a more measured practice of stocking up on the products they need as their longtime habits remain disrupted.
In an interview in late April, Kate Muhl, an analyst specializing in cultural and consumer insights at Gartner, said her research showed product shortages continued to be one of consumers’ primary concerns—with household items such as paper goods and cleaning supplies topping the list. Not much has changed since then.
And, according to data from the National Retail Federation (NRF), half of consumers said they were still stocking up on food and household supplies to last a few weeks, while 31% said they were stocking up on medical supplies. Another 33% were worried about not being able to get fresh produce and cleaning products.
But unlike panic buying, which experts say reflects a lack of control consumers seek to overcome by fortifying their homes, this new purchase phase is more about changing needs—and centered on availability.
For one thing, consumers are, well, consuming more products at home because they’re spending more time there, which means they need to buy more than they did previously.
“Panic buying has stopped, but there is an elevated in-home consumption demand,” said K.K. Davey, president of strategic analytics at market research company IRI Worldwide. “The CPG demand curve is reshaping … rapidly in response to Covid-19 and related effects.”
That includes more frozen food, alcohol, laundry detergent and household appliances, but fewer beauty products, for example.
Davey said consumers have responded to the pandemic by shopping more on weekday mornings, when stores are cleaner and hopefully less crowded. But they’re also cutting down on trips by buying more at a single time. That also contributes to “stocking up.”
According to Muhl, American consumers made 1.6 grocery trips per week in 2019, but are now trying to shop once every two weeks if they can, which she called a “massive mind shift.”
In addition, Davey said consumers are going to a single store rather than the two or three they used to visit each week, and that one retailer now sees a bigger basket as a result.
“The beneficiary is grocery,” he said. “Consumers are not only buying food and beverages there, but also nonedibles like beauty and other stuff they didn’t buy as much in grocery, which makes sense—if they’re there, they might as well pick it up rather than go to a drugstore.”
Shopping like the Pioneer Woman
And because consumers haven’t necessarily been able to rely on old standbys to fulfill shopping needs, experts say retailers and consumers alike are getting creative—and, in some cases, consumers are ending up with larger quantities than ever.
That includes mass merchants offering industrial-sized goods such as toilet paper and hand soap that would normally be sold to offices, as well as restaurant supply companies looking to offload perishables in bulk quantities.
“People are getting super creative and flexible about the ways they shop,” Muhl said. “It’s not just a survival tactic; it helps you feel like you’re in control.”
And, she said, the glass-is-half-full spin is it gives consumers access to products they might not otherwise get, like cuts of restaurant-quality meat. (Although she conceded there are some challenges that come with it, like, say, where to store 50 pounds of flour.)
“It’s a weird way to shop even for people … like the Pioneer Woman, who are used to cooking for a farmhouse crowd and in the middle of nowhere and who order huge quantities of food and store it—even for those folks, there’s uncertainty,” Muhl said. “But most people don’t operate that way. They’re learning fast.”
And, she said, the fact that these options are starting to bubble up—as we also see brands go DTC—indicates “there’s a lot of supply in the wrong places.”
‘The system is not fine’
In fact, Muhl took issue with the term “panic buying” because “it really puts consumers in a mode of being unreasonable.”
This, she said, implies consumers are irrational while the system is just fine.
“If there’s one thing we should all take away, it’s the system is not fine and people are doing all sorts of stuff that is rational,” Muhl added.
That includes pouncing on a favorite item because there’s been so much uncertainty about availability.
Or, as Muhl put it, “If an opportunity to get Reese’s Puffs comes up, you take it and now you have a basement with three boxes of Reese’s Puffs.”
This, she said, reflects “a kind of broken trust” between consumers and suppliers as the former can’t rely on the latter to have what they need in the future. And it’s hard to tell when that trust will be restored.
For one thing, panic buying didn’t affect all areas of the country the same way or on the same timeline—and access to options such as online grocery still varies by geography, said Katherine Cullen, senior director of industry and consumer insights at the NRF.
Plus, Muhl said the outcome depends on how the government, societal leaders and private companies opt to intervene.
In the meantime, she said, “The sense there’s stuff you need that isn’t available to buy, but it’s there [somewhere]—that will be the consumer reality for a while.”