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‘Panic buying’ was a reality in many countries during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but ‘Disaster-related buying behaviors’ (DRBBs) is a better term as ‘panic’ is actually a misnomer.

This is the view of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Jose Holguin-Veras, William H. Hart Chair Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and director of the Center for Infrastructure, Transportation, and the Environment (CITE).

“Disaster-related buying behaviors or DRBBs is a more accurate phrase than panic buying,” Holguin-Veras said. “Panic refers to extreme fear that causes someone to act irrationally, which negates the possibility to reason with these individuals to change their purchasing behaviors.”

In research recently published, Holguín-Veras and his team found that, in the US, the top three drivers of DRBBs were: precaution (25.79 percent), the anticipation of needs (22.63 percent) to avoid the possibility of regret if they didn’t make the purchases (16.39 percent), and their interpretation of the actions of others, or social cues (13.44 percent).

The key to altering consumer behavior to maintain adequate supply levels and maintain supply chain resilience is ‘trusted change agents’, or TCAs. TCAs refer to the representatives of groups active in disaster perceived to be knowledgeable and trustworthy such as the Red Cross, national / state / local emergency responders, firefighters, and national / state / local health officials, that can reach large numbers of people, understand the need to influence the individuals that result in DRBBs and are willing to act.

89 percent of people said that they would limit their purchases if asked by a trusted change agent.

“Managing DRBBs requires effective public-private-humanitarian collaboration,” said Holguin-Veras. “The public sector has the legal authority to intervene when needed, the private sector has control over the access and supplies, and the humanitarian sector has the deep community connections.” These sectors must work together in preparation, response, and assessment.

Building trust and relationships, monitoring events and identifying situations that could prompt DRBBs, and examining legal frameworks are priorities during the preparation phase. During response, demand should be managed by working with private- and humanitarian- sector representatives, TCAs should be engaged, opportunistic purchases should be controlled to foster equitable access, and rationing should be instituted if needed. Appeals for the donations of stockpiled supplies are another measure that can be taken. Finally, a comprehensive assessment would facilitate any needed improvements.

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