Communicate clearly, fear of unknown leads to panic buying, expert says

Fear of the unknown is what leads to panic buying, so, to avoid it, details must be communicated clearly to the public.

“Lack of clarity worries people,” said Mark Blackham, crisis communication expert and director of BlacklandPR. “If you must communicate, do it succinctly, give a true picture and provide clear instructions.”

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been encouraging Kiwis to shop normally, emphasising that supermarkets will remain open throughout the lockdown, which is commencing tonight at midnight to stop the spread of COVID-19.

All non-essential businesses will close during this time, however, essential services, such as supermarkets, pharmacies, service stations and health services, will remain open throughout the lockdown.

But although consumers have been encouraged not to panic buy, a Finder survey of 1,508 respondents showed two in five New Zealanders, or 39 per cent, have been unable to buy certain items from supermarkets this month.

Hand sanitisers were proven to be the most sought after supermarket item in New Zealand, with 18 per cent of Kiwis unable to find this in stock, followed by toilet paper, 6 per cent, dry food such as rice, 5 per cent, and fresh food, 4 per cent.

Kevin McHugh, Finder’s publisher in New Zealand, said these are uncertain times and new developments are unfolding every day. Naturally, Kiwis are feeling apprehensive about what will happen next.

But, he said, some people have gone too far and purchased an excessive number of products.

“Because of this widespread panic buying, thousands of other shoppers may have had to go without, including the vulnerable and disabled,” McHugh said.

He said Kiwis need to remember that although the country is going into lockdown, supermarkets will remain open and supply chains are operating as normal.

“This means that if everyone were to shop like they normally do, there will be enough supplies to go around.”

But, according to Blackham, that is exactly what not to do or say during a crisis.

“Inexpert urging to be calm and act normally convinces people that there really is something to panic about,” he said.

“People act instinctively in a crisis to protect their lives, health and livelihoods. After years of economic ease, many organisations are completely incapable of dealing with customer desperation.”

Blackham, who advised during crises such as the global financial crisis and electricity shortages, criticised the “shop normally” campaign by supermarkets because it fails to recognise the desperation of people.

“Supermarkets have driven panic buying because their words were weaker than what was communicated by empty shelves,” he said.

“Their claim that everything was okay actually made people believe that supplies were short.”

Blackham said at the root of most failed communications was an insistence by organisations that everything was or would be okay.

“Desperation is more contagious than this virus, and uncontrollable by words. Early admission about coming pressures would have given people time to prepare – reducing panic.”


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