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Published March 13th 2020

Coronavirus: Looking Back at How Panic Buying ‘Went Viral’

With coronavirus tightening its grip on the globe, we look back at conversations around panic buying and examine whether hoarding is caused by the media.

If you’ve gone hunting for hand sanitizer and found bare shelves recently, you are not alone.

We’ve seen some unusual activity over the last week or so. An Aussie newspaper featured blank newspaper for those getting desperate in the wake of toilet paper shortages. And there are other items that seem to be going out of stock, too.

Australia, the US, and the UK are deep in ‘panic buying’ mode, despite officials warning against the irrational behavior. So decided to take a deep dive into conversation from those countries and to look at how stockpiling is impacted by the media, using Consumer Research.

Going out of stock

In recent days we’ve seen a rise in conversation around things being ‘out of stock’.

In the period we studied, we found a total of 137K mentions of ‘out of stock’ and a store name.

Mentions of 'out of stock' alongside a store name

Source: Brandwatch Consumer Research

I included Amazon in the above chart because it spans lots of countries, and is being caught up in a lot of the ‘out of stock’ mentions.

Negativity is, of course, a large driving force in these conversations. People clearly aren’t happy they can’t access the goods they’re after.

The negative mentions we found were often fueled by price hikes on items like sanitizer, disinfectant, and face masks, as well as toilet paper.

Usually a 24 pack of Andrex (UK equivilent to Cottonelle) will set you back around £9 ($11), but we’ve seen prices rocket online.

The price of a 24 pack of Cottonelle on Amazon (US dollars)

UK USA Australia
$33.93 $36.01 $30.82
9 March

Different priorities across different countries

Of course, it’s not just on Amazon that people are finding stock running low. And, looking at what people are talking about in relation to ‘sold out’, it’s not just toilet paper.

You can see a few different priorities for those in different countries on each list below:

Interestingly, there were no location differences within these countries when it came to priorities.

Comparing LA to New York, London to Manchester, and Sydney to Melbourne, all of the items being discussed as out of stock were the same, and came out in the same order.

Is the media to blame for people panic buying?

It’s hard to say exactly what causes panic buying (other than, well, panic). But our data suggests there could be a relationship between media hype around panic buying and subsequent spikes in conversation around things being sold out and panic buying.

The number of press articles mentioning coronavirus stockpiling or hoarding are lower than organic social mentions, but a peak in news mentions of stockpiling came just before a spike in social mentions of the practice.

As you can see below, there is a concentrated period in which lots of news articles around stockpiling are published between 3-6 March. Scroll across to social mentions of things being out of stock, and you’ll see how these mentions flourished between 6-8 March.

News articles about stockpiling for coronavirus

Source: BuzzSumo, 17 February - 9 March 2020.

Social mentions of 'out of stock', alongside store names

Source: Brandwatch Consumer Research, 17 February - 9 March 2020.

Reader engagement with stories around stockpiling remains high.

Stockpiling is a problem

Stockpiling is a big problem because it leaves vulnerable members of the population in the lurch. And, when you can’t buy soap, you’re exposing your germs to everyone else.

But, when all else fails, you’ve got to laugh or you’ll cry, right?

Let us know what you think or what you’d like to know more at @BW_React or react@brandwatch.com

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