Behavioral health expert explains panic shopping during COVID-19 outbreak

Hoarding during a crisis

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Rising concerns over COVID-19 is driving shoppers to the store, leaving shelves barren.

People worry that items won’t be available in the future and start to buy in abnormally large amounts, said Mark Person, a behavioral health expert at the Pima County Health Department.

"Seeing empty shelves and signs up that say 'limit the purchase' every time we go in and we're being reinforced by this fear," Person said.

He said an unexpected spike in sales from panic buying can throw off supply and demand and cause certain products to go out of stock quickly.

What's the difference between panic buying and stocking up?

Shopping turns into panic buying when a person is purchasing products far out of proportion to their needs, Person said.

A local grocery store in downtown Tucson, Johnny Gibson's Downtown Market, has seen a high demand for toilet paper, hand wipes, bleach, paper towels, flour and pasta.

Why has toilet paper become such a highly sought-after product?

"It's definitely a psychological thing," Person said. "There is no realistic scenario where, if you run out of paper towels or toilet paper that, it will jeopardize your health in that significant of a way."

Person said toilet paper is a product everyone uses and therefore it was on most people's list to go out and buy.

"Everybody uses basic hygiene products," he said. "That's why I think we're seeing the toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer and medicines flying off the shelves."

When will panic buying slow down?

Pearson said panic shopping will lessen when people's fears subside, and as people realize there isn't a threat to food or product supplies.

Recently, Johnny Gibson’s Downtown Market Co-owner Paul Cisek noticed items aren’t selling out as quickly and shoppers have slowed down on bulk shopping.

“They see things coming and going so they know that they’re going to be here,” Cisek said. “I think they’re a little more at ease.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people have a two-week supply of food, prescriptions, over-the-counter medications and other essentials.

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