Professor of Supply Chain Management Simon Croom Says Panic Buying Creates "Pig in Python" Effect

Empty shelves at a grocery store
begin quoteHere’s why experts say that shopping responsibly is an important part of flattening the curve and helping the world function as normally as possible during this impossible time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to panic buying across the U.S. emptying grocery store shelves of pantry essentials including toilet paper, canned goods, pasta and more. University of San Diego School of Business Professor of Supply Chain Management Simon Croom lent his supply chain expertise to Reader's Digest that discusses why shopping responsibly is also necessary to flatten the curve. 

"[Panic buying] causes a ‘pig in a python’—i.e., a massive demand ‘lump’ flows slowly upstream and can disrupt each stage due to problems matching available capacity with the replenishment volumes ordered by retailers,” says Simon Croom. 

Article as it appears in Reader's Digest

Why Panic Buying Is Not Actually Helpful

Toilet paper, hand sanitizer, protective masks, Tylenol, flour and so many other items have suddenly become hot commodities as most Americans hunker down at home during the coronavirus pandemic. This has left many people shopping in bulk as they attempt to be prepared not just for a possible two-week quarantine but for months—just in case. You’ve seen the empty shelves at the stores across the country. You’ve also likely seen the pictures of people’s garages stuffed with supplies, so if you find it, you’re going to buy it. After all, if you don’t, someone else will, you’ll be left with nothing and then what will happen?

Stop right there…and breathe. You’re panicking, and that’s causing you to engage in some aptly termed “panic buying.” While it might not seem like a big deal since you’re just one person, you’re adding to a larger problem and causing serious harm in ways you don’t realize. “Panic buying is an act of selfish madness,” says Paul Hong, professor of global supply chain management and Asian studies at the University of Toledo. “An African proverb says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’ In times of crisis, aim to go far together, not fast alone. We survive together.”

Here’s why experts say that shopping responsibly is an important part of flattening the curve and helping the world function as normally as possible during this impossible time. So, to borrow a phrase, keep calm and carry on—without buying everything in sight.

What causes panic buying?

Panic buying arises out of a perfect storm of conditions, according to Jud Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University. “Fear plus uncertainty leads to anxiety because our brains need [the] information to plan for the future. In the absence of information, that uncertainty drives anxiety,” Brewer explains. “Anxiety is that small fire that suddenly becomes a bonfire and spreads when fueled by social contagion, turning into panic.”

Social media can further fuel this panic—something you’ve probably experienced yourself after seeing picture after picture of empty shelves and reading stories about people who’ve bought thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer. You wonder: What will happen to me if there’s nothing left? While that is a valid question, the larger question is: What will happen to everyone if nothing is left? Well, nothing good, and your individual actions are a contributing factor.

Here’s how to stock up wisely, emergency or not.

Doctors and nurses can’t do their jobs safely and effectively

We can never repay medical professionals for fighting on the front lines against this disease. We can, however, cut the nonsense so that they can stay safe while doing their jobs. There’s currently a severe shortage of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). A recent survey found that many hospitals only have a ten-day supply of masks left. One reason is that regular people have been buying masks in massive quantities—even though they don’t need it. As a result, doctors and nurses are having to ration and reuse these essential items.

This particular form of panic buying is problematic for a few reasons. First, by hoarding masks, these panicked shoppers are likely putting these health professionals’ lives in danger. Doctors and nurses seemingly have a higher chance of becoming infected because of their constant exposure, and they can unwittingly spread COVID-19 to healthy patients and others before they become symptomatic. Finally, if health care workers get sick, they won’t be able to continue to do their jobs. This creates a ripple effect, causing many more people to go without care and potentially lose their lives because there simply aren’t enough caretakers.

People can’t get the essentials

Look, not everyone wants a bunker’s worth of toilet paper. Some people just need it because they’ve run out. Panic buying disrupts the supply chain, and, eventually, there’s no availability depending on the specifics of the product, which could last for a while. “It causes a ‘pig in a python’—i.e., a massive demand ‘lump’ flows slowly upstream and can disrupt each stage due to problems matching available capacity with the replenishment volumes ordered by retailers,” says Simon Croom, PhD, professor of supply chain management at the University of San Diego School of Business.

While we’ve all been feeling the effects of this with cleaning products and assorted household items, it can become even more problematic with “specialty” items—like baby formula, over-the-counter medications, and more. “Follow the airplane-safety rule: First take care of yourself and then your neighbors,” Hong says.

If you can’t find your usual cleaning supplies, try these household products that kill coronavirus, according to Consumer Reports.

Certain groups of people suffer more

When there’s a crisis often those who are most vulnerable are put at an even greater risk. “Panic buying disproportionately affects low-resource communities that are already impacted by social barriers such as transportation, proximity to grocery stores, and income,” says Karen Dale, a registered nurse and the market president for AmeriHealth Caritas, Washington, D.C. “[They] do not have the additional funds to stock up on weeks or months worth of food and supplies at one time. Additionally, if shelves are continually empty, repeated trips to the store are challenging and costly when you consider factors like transportation and child care.” As a result, these people are left without the necessary items for survival.

People with chronic illnesses also face unique challenges. Those with diabetes or hypertension need balanced meals, Dale adds. When options in the store are few and far between, they may opt for less-healthy items that could exacerbate their conditions.

Infection spreads

If people can’t get the basics they need at one store (or online), they’ll have to head elsewhere to find it. Visiting multiple places and coming in contact with more people increases their risk of infection, Dale says. This situation can get even worse if stores are forced to restrict purchases. “As stores begin to limit the number of products you can buy at a time, more people are returning frequently and traveling to multiple locations to stock up. This repeated exposure in enclosed public spaces can make social distancing difficult and increases the overall risk,” Dale explains. We flatten the curve by staying home as much as possible, but we can’t do that if we can’t find what we need at our regular shopping spots.

Plus, when people can’t find things like soaps, sanitizers, and disinfectants—we’ve got another problem on our hands. These essential items help to stem the spread of coronavirus, and without them, people may end up unwittingly infecting others. So, maybe put that tenth bottle of hand soap back on the shelf, OK?


Renata Ramirez
(619) 260-4658