Varying approach from supermarkets
While some stores are already under pressure from panicked consumers, Coles has acted quickly and introduced a two-item limit on purchases of toilet paper and face masks in NSW, QLD, WA and NT (Darwin and Alice Springs), with consumers in the latter state also restricted to two purchases of mince, chicken thighs and chicken breast.
“We have plenty of stock in our supply chain, and purchase limits are a temporary measure to help us manage demand so that we can return our stores to a fully-stocked position as quickly as possible,” a Coles spokesperson told Inside Retail.
“We ask that customers stay calm, shop normally and be respectful to our hard-working team members.”
It seems Coles has been the most proactive in limiting purchases. Aldi Australia does not have any product restrictions in place at this time. A spokesperson told Inside Retail that the retailer is working closely with business partners to ensure that there is plenty of stock available across its stores and is asking shoppers “to resist any compulsion to purchase more than they normally would, and to shop with kindness and consideration.”
Currently, Woolworths has only introduced a two-pack limit on toilet paper after panic buying led to some shortages in store and online.
CEO Brad Banducci described the situation as “frustrating”.
“It seems the almost primordial urge to pantry stock toilet paper is still symbolic of these times. We expect to be back in full stock in the next few days and as previously, we’d ask you to only buy what you need,” Banducci said in a letter to customers this week.
“We have plenty of stock of most essential items, with more continuing to flow through from our distribution centres.”
Jana Bowden, an expert in consumer psychology and consumer engagement at Macquarie University Business School, believes supermarkets are taking appropriate action in response to panic buying.
“They are placing buying limits on products quickly and as needed, they have shored up supply so that stock outs are temporary and replenishment is timely, and they have improved their PR and strategic communication with the public to allay fears of product sell-outs,” she told Inside Retail.
“In other words they have learned from over a year’s worth of experience dealing with panic buying cycles and they are much more proactive at managing and responding to consumers’ reactionary buying behaviour.”
The groundwork done by supermarkets in 2020 to improve online shopping services will also likely alleviate the pressure on stores. However, when logging on to both websites prior to publication, both were slow to display information, which could signal difficulties dealing with increased web traffic.
Both Coles and Woolworths offer contactless home delivery and click-and-collect services across their store network and like many smaller, independent retailers such as IGA, they lean on third party delivery services to ease pressure on their own teams.
On the frontline
A consistent theme in the supermarkets’ response is a call for calm and for shoppers to show respect towards retail staff. Customer aggression towards retail staff has increased due to the pandemic, and earlier this year Woolworths introduced bodycams and additional CCTV to tackle the ongoing issue.
Given the essential status of supermarkets and grocery retailers, shoppers and frontline staff are also at a heightened risk of being exposed to community transmission of Covid-19.
In the last week alone, 17 Woolworths supermarkets have been listed as Covid-19 exposure sites. And due to the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant, there is more pressure than ever before to maintain hygiene and social distancing measures.
Banducci highlighted the importance of transparency around exposure sites in his update and reassured customers that all impacted stores undergo a deep clean.
“We’ll continue to be as transparent as possible, including posting notices online and in-store when we learn of confirmed cases,” he said.
As part of its efforts, Woolworths’ Health & Safety ambassadors are positioned at the entry of all its supermarkets in the Greater Sydney area between the hours of 9am- 7pm to help with QR code check-in, cleaning baskets and trolleys, and monitoring the number of customers.
A spokesperson for Coles advised Inside Retail that stores have increased the frequency of cleaning high touchpoint areas such as self-checkout screens and keypads. Customers are encouraged to use sanitising stations prior to entering the store, to wear masks in stores, where required by state government, and check in via QR codes at the front of the store.
Bowden praised supermarkets’ efforts in communicating openly with customers and said the key to shaping consumer behaviour lies in managing consumers’ cognitive thought processes and their emotional reactions.
“The supermarkets have learned to deal with consumers’ feelings through the provision of facts, information and transparency – by announcing clearly what steps they are taking to assure supply. This communication has a calming effect. It’s based on evidence and it builds trust,” she said.
“The results of this emotional connection are evident in Roy Morgan’s 2021 trust data, Woolworths and Coles came out on top as Australia’s most trusted brands. In fact Coles was the fastest mover in terms of building trust in 2020 jumping several positions on the trust scale during the depths of the Covid health crisis.”
Building up this trust doesn’t happen overnight or by accident, according to Bowden, “it takes clear strategy and constant work on the brand to deliver results like that”.
The psychology behind stockpiling
Dan Monheit, co-founder of Hardhat, a creative agency built on behaviour, believes there are multiple behavioural biases at play when it comes to panic buying.
The first being “Zero Risk Bias”.
“This speaks to our need for complete certainty. Any reduction in risk is good, but complete elimination of risk is disproportionately good. Therefore buying our normal six roll pack of toilet paper is fine, yet, there’s a small chance that we’re going to run out,” Monheit said.
“Whereas, right now, it’s going all-in and buying up the six packets of toilet paper to eliminate that. People know it’s crazy but do it anyway.”
When combined with Scarcity Bias, “there’s a sense that things are running out and that we should act fast to get what we want before it’s all gone”.
“Then there’s Social Proof … It’s very hard to see other people walking through the supermarket with shopping trolleys laden with goods and not get the sneaking suspicion that we should probably do it too,” he said.
“The unfortunate reality is that the cost of acting as a good reasonable rational citizen is pretty low. The risk of not doing it is perceived to be pretty high. Even though rationally, we know everything is probably going to be fine, but we feel as if we should buy everything because what if it’s not?”
Bowden describes it as “a primed fear response to uncertainty” and believes social media also has a role to play.
“The first thing we saw spread this week with the lockdowns in NSW were images on social media and in the media of empty shelves devoid of toilet paper. That has a vicarious effect on us,” she said.
“We don’t even need to be in a supermarket watching people panic buy, just the mere images on social media send consumers into an anxious state. There’s an emotional over-representation of fear in consumers’ minds and it overwhelms our ability to think straight and rationally.”