Hoarding – an attempted rebellion against our own helplessness
An ongoing study at the University of Cologne is exploring changes in our consumption behaviour during the corona crisis / First results from Germany on the causes of hoarding
In a survey, a research team from the marketing area of the Faculty of Business Administration, Economics, and Social Sciences at the University of Cologne has found out that buyers currently cite fears as the main reason for increased buying behaviour.
Currently, the coronavirus crisis is determining our everyday lives. This includes shelves emptied by hoarders. The marketing experts Professor Dr André Marchand, Junior Professor Dr Martin Fritze and doctoral researcher Friederike Gobrecht are investigating this phenomenon and its causes.
Looking at current data from the German Federal Statistical Office (Destatis), the explosiveness of the issue becomes clear: The sale of selected products rose to an extremely high level in the week of 16 to 22 March 2020, and in the three weeks before. For example, the demand for soap was more than four times as high as in the preceding six months (+337 percent), while the demand for toilet paper was more than three times as high (+211 percent).
André Marchand explained: ‘There are numerous theoretically plausible reasons for the current hoarding behaviour. In our study, we wanted to find out what consumers themselves think about their own changed buying behaviour – and that of other people.’
For the survey, the team interviewed 250 randomly selected people in Germany anonymously and online on 23 March 2020. The age of the respondents ranged from 18 to 71 years (mean value: 37), with 44 percent female, 56 percent male. Almost 40 percent of the respondents lived in a big city at the time of the survey, a similar number in a smaller city, and the rest in rural areas.
Only 21 percent of respondents reported that they had bought more toilet paper than usual. Professor Marchand explained: ‘Since so-called hoarding is socially undesirable and perceived as lacking in solidarity, shame might have prevented an honest answer here. However, with questions about other socially desirable behaviour, which were not apparent as such to the participants, we eliminated these distortions as far as possible.’
The most common reason given by just over 50 percent of those participants who had bought more than usual was concern about availability. The researchers explain this concern with the many photos of empty shelves and hoarders circulating in social media and in other media outlets. ‘When people see the empty shelves in supermarkets for themselves after the striking pictures on social media, the gap is particularly noticeable because toilet paper takes up a lot of space. This way, the hoarding of some people prompts others to hoard as well because they get the impression that it’s better to buy more now before products are out of stock again’, said Professor Marchand.
Half of the consumers who hoard cite fear that supermarkets could close, or a general feeling of powerlessness in the current situation as reasons. Of the remaining respondents who said that they do not hoard, as many as 82 percent believe that this is the reason other people hoard.
Other reasons given by hoarders include the long shelf life of toilet paper, additional purchases for relatives and friends, and the need for greater security and control to be gained by hoarding.
‘Interestingly, we found no differences among people of different ages regarding this behaviour, but we did find differences in individual mortality salience, that is, the person’s individual assessment and concern that he or she might die soon. This can, but does not have to, depend on age or pre-existing medical conditions,’ said Junior Professor Martin Fritze. Those participants in the study who reported that they did not buy more than usual assumed that this behaviour was mainly due to herd instinct, i.e., that it was not founded on facts.
More than half of the hoarders questioned stated that they had also bought more of other products than usual as well, such as pasta, canned food and hygiene products. However, the team did not find any significant differences in purchasing behaviour when it came to spending on digital services.
Professor Marchand drew a preliminary conclusion for the study, which is still in progress and will be expanded: ‘Our study has already provided exciting insights into the motives of hoarders in Germany. We are currently planning to extend the survey to other countries in order to learn more about cultural and regional differences. Also, we will repeat it after the corona crisis.’ A publication of the collected study results will follow.
In a further study, the research team is also investigating the effects of curfews on consumption.