Panic buying dominated headlines early last year in 2020 as anxious Singaporeans rushed to supermarkets, stocking up on essential supplies to stay prepared for an uncertain future.

Similar scenes were witnessed over the weekend at various stores in the wake of enhanced Covid-19 restrictions announced on 14th May, with the government urging shoppers to observe restraint.

A lot of ink has been spilled on the topic of panic buying with netizens and experts from around the world, all weighing in to deconstruct this behaviour.

We've read and opined a lot about panic buyers, but have we truly understood what makes them tick?

In the context of Singapore, despite the inherent kiasu-ness, panic buying during the early days of Covid-19 was considered "unprecedented" - a phenomenon that wasn't observed even during the H1N1 (swine flu) or SARS outbreak.

We at Milieu Insight sought to delve deeper into the panic buyer persona in Singapore to understand what factors, beyond mere "fear" and "anxiety", drive them to behave the way they do.

First, it’s important to make it clear that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a material disruption to consumer buying behaviour of everyday products, such as groceries. Data from Milieu’s Covid-19 sentiment tracker has shown a sustained high spend on groceries by Singaporeans over time, and so not everyone who is buying more than they did prior to the Covid-19 outbreak should be considered “panic buying”.

To quantify panic buying behaviour, we launched a study in March 2020 to N=5,402 Singapore citizens and residents and asked three simple questions:

1. Did they EVER stock up on groceries and/or household items more than what they would need after the Covid-19 situation escalated?

2. If so, how much more did they buy than they needed?

3. How many times did they do this?

34% of the Singapore population admitted to buying more than they needed since the Covid-19 crisis escalated, and a further 9% of this group (or 3% of the total population) admitted to buying a LOT MORE than what they needed. This particular group - those who admitted to buying a LOT MORE than they needed - are whom we consider extreme panic buyers, and will be the focus of this article.

Extreme Panic Buyers: more than meets the eye

During times of adversity, acts of social responsibility and kindness provide hope that we, as a society, can overcome any hardship. However, images of people excessively stockpiling everyday supplies present a jarring contrast. This often brands panic buyers as selfish and inconsiderate.

However, our data suggests that the truth is more complicated than we might think.

Extreme panic buyers in Singapore are most likely to be between 35 to 44 years old (30%), male (64%), and married (49%). Scratch a little deeper beyond the surface demographics, and a more holistic narrative emerges.

Compared to the total Singapore population, extreme panic buyers are significantly more likely to live in households with more than five members (41% vs 29% for the total population). They are also significantly more likely to live with their parents (54% vs 43%) or with elderly persons who depend on them (35% vs 23%). Aside from supporting older dependents, extreme panic buyers also skew higher for having three or more children (30% vs 20%) and for being regular purchasers of children's products (70% vs 32%). In summary, extreme panic buyers are more likely to be a part of Singapore's Sandwich Generation - people who have to financially support and care for older and younger family members at the same time.

Extreme panic buyers also skew significantly higher for being the grocery decision-makers of their household (82% vs 71%). They're also more likely to self-report being better at financial management compared to the total population (73% vs 64%).

These stats offer unique perspectives into the motivations of extreme panic buyers, and underline the fact that they're not necessarily driven by greed and self-interest. Extreme panic buyers are, after all, decision-makers of large households, typically with vulnerable dependents. And so it won’t be a stretch to assume they're under a great deal of pressure during these exceptional times of uncertainty. When asked about the importance of family, they were more likely to say family time is very important compared to the total population (97% vs 93%), and they're more likely to report staying in touch with extended family (69% vs 57%).

Hence, excessive stockpiling of everyday products may be motivated more by a desire to protect their loved ones in a time of need, rather than a behaviour purely driven by self-interest. For them, stockpiling may be an act of protecting their vulnerable households as a means to safeguard their futures.

Distinctive personal traits

Are there factors beyond familial concerns that differentiate extreme panic buyers? We took a look at some personal traits that extreme panic buyers associate themselves with and that set them apart from the rest.

Extreme panic buyers identify themselves as more competitive (42% vs 30%), which may serve as a mental trigger that drives them to rush out to their local grocery store and stock up. When it comes to broader social situations beyond the household, they tend to describe themselves in less altruistic terms. For instance, they're less likely than the total population to identify as being friendly (47% vs 60%), polite (56% vs 63%), thoughtful (61% vs 68%), and empathetic (41% vs 47%).

There is a certain social cost to excessively hoarding during times of a national crisis like this. Judgmental glares in the toilet paper aisle or virtue-signaling on public platforms urging Singaporeans to be more considerate are something we've all read about. Even Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing labelled panic buyers in Singapore, albeit behind permeable closed doors, as "disgraceful" citizens who caused global embarrassment. This was of course before Covid-19 swept across the globe and it became clear, if it wasn't already, that panic buying was not a uniquely Singaporean phenomenon.

What's striking is that extreme panic buyers in Singapore appear to have indulged in excessive stockpiling more than once, as 45% of them stated that they stockpiled more than what they needed three times or more since the Covid-19 outbreak. Doing so despite repeated assurances that Singapore had ample food supplies might lead one to assume that they're simply less empathetic to the needs of others. But this is not necessarily the case, as extreme panic buyers are actually more likely to care about social issues, such as addressing climate change and addressing poverty in Singapore compared to the total population, according to our data.

So what drove them to repeatedly stockpile despite the social cost and warnings not to do so? Beyond their need to protect loved ones and to safeguard their future, price sensitivity plays a big role in their shopping decisions. How exactly? Read on as we expand on this in the next section.

Extremely price sensitive

When examining the shopping attitudes of extreme panic buyers, what stands out is their extreme sensitivity to pricing when it comes to general household staples.

When posed with the question,"Which factor do you consider MOST when deciding where to go shopping for everyday products?", the general population was equally split between price (37%) and convenience/location (37%). But among the extreme panic buyers, a whopping 63% rated price as the most important factor. They are also significantly more likely to conduct research online and search for promos / offers before making a purchase (50% vs 27%). So, money does indeed play a large role in their lives and is always a key consideration when they make decisions, both big and small.

In the end, it seems there's more to the psyche of panic buyers' than meets the eye. Their motivations to rush out to their local supermarket, queue up and stockpile goods are as complex as they are layered. But it's also important to keep things in perspective. Buying more than one needs has been a staple behaviour for many, not just in Singapore, since the Covid-19 outbreak. And those who do partake in what we consider to be extreme panic buying are a relatively small segment of the population (roughly 3% in Singapore).

So as we try to unpack the psychology of extreme panic buying, let's not forget that empty shelves during the early days of Covid-19 were a function of both supply and demand shocks to global food supply chains. And yes, extreme panic buyers didn't help, but they certainly weren't the root cause. The real culprit was, of course, Covid-19 and the unpredictable consequences that came with it.