Whether it’s a blizzard, a hurricane or a plague of locusts, few things drive customers to the stores en masse like impending inclement weather events. However, instead of stocking up on actual essentials, like batteries, flashlights and nonperishable foods that might actually help in an emergency situation, why is it that so many consumers are rushing out to grocery stores ahead of Winter Storm Jonas just to get things like milk, bread and toilet paper?
In an interview with Time, consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow explained that there’s not much logic behind people grabbing the last pack of Twinkies or stocking up on filling, calorie-full French toast ingredients. However, why shoppers feel compelled to buy whatever they can, wherever they can is much more comprehensible, though no less comforting.
“It starts with a normal impulse to stock up on things that might not be available for a few days,” Yarrow said. “Panic hits when the stores are jammed with other shoppers and the shelves look a little bare. It’s not so much a thought as it is an impulse that hits, and it’s associated with the caveman parts of our brain that take over when we perceive we might be in physical danger. We are prewired to fight for food when we sense that resources are scarce.”
It’s not that consumers actually want unnecessary supplies but that they don’t want to be left out in the cold if it actually turns out that crêpes with fresh strawberries are the only edible options in the post-blizzard wasteland. This isn’t a wholly unfamiliar dynamic for retail. For years, merchants worked on harried customers with Black Friday doorbuster deals, enticing them to do whatever it took to get a very limited supply of very discounted products.
For reference, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends stocking up on more reasonable supplies, like sealed, potable water and food that doesn’t require cooking, but sometimes the last custom cake from the bakery display is exactly what some snowed-in shoppers need to survive a storm.