What caused Aussies to panic-buy?

Desperate shoppers brawling over toilet paper and stripping shelves of food staples will go down in the COVID-19 panic buying history books.

From fists flying in the aisles to public shaming of hoarders of tinned items and abuse of staff, at the height of hysteria our supermarkets have at times resembled battlegrounds.

Compare that with those who soldiered on through several years of rationing of essentials during World War II and beyond.

So what's been driving some of us completely off our trolleys?

Dr Brent Coker, consumer psychologist from the University of Melbourne, said the sheer speed and shock of the coronavirus crisis had fuelled extreme anxiety and an instinct to protect ourselves from a threat.

"Imagine cornering an animal - they go nuts," Dr Coker said.

"When people feel like they have suddenly lost control of their lives the reaction can sometimes be negative."


Coles shelves were stripped bare of essentials.
Coles shelves were stripped bare of essentials.


In contrast, those who went through rationing in WWII had more time to adjust and felt more fortunate than those losing their lives in the war.

Back then, buying limits were imposed on a host of goods such as clothing, tea, sugar, butter, meat and petrol. Customers had to surrender coupons when they paid.

Posters and pamphlets rallied the community to make "new clothes from old" and take care of hosiery to avoid wasting coupons.

Efforts to ration meat so it could be sent to Britain were lauded.

Women lined up in queues to consult with butchers on how to best use their allocated allowance.

Recipe competitions awarded cash prizes for the most inspired frugal meal ideas. Mock sausages, roasted bones, baked turnip dumplings and savoury mutton flaps were dished up for dinner.

National Archives of Australia senior curator Anne-Marie Conde said that on the whole, people accepted and were "relatively cheerful" about sacrifices they made to manage scarcity and support the war effort.

But it became tiring as time stretched on. And black markets offering goods at grossly inflated prices emerged.

Federal government-ordered rationing was introduced on clothing from June, 1942. Tea rations were abolished in July, 1950.

"The point of rationing was to make sure everyone got a fair share to live on," Ms Conde said.

Petrol Ration Tickets – Five Gallon, World War II, 1940-1945 – Picture: Museums Victoria
Petrol Ration Tickets – Five Gallon, World War II, 1940-1945 – Picture: Museums Victoria

It curbed consumer spending as manufacturing and manpower were directed to wartime industries such as military uniforms and munitions.

"People felt quite strongly that if their son was fighting in New Guinea or the Middle East or flying over Germany they could make sacrifices. If they couldn't join the army or navy or air force they could at least do their bit.

"Most felt it was an all in effort for the good of the nation."

Ms Conde said that it was also hoped that with less spending in the economy, people would invest in "victory loans" to help finance the war.

While rationing was an orderly system once implemented, the lead-up was not always as civilised.

There were reports of city shoppers scuffling and randomly grabbing garments without trying them on when a daily clothing sales quota was imposed a month before full-scale rationing came into effect.


Ration Card – Amelia Roberts, Meat, Commonwealth of Australia, 1948. Picture: Museums Victoria
Ration Card – Amelia Roberts, Meat, Commonwealth of Australia, 1948. Picture: Museums Victoria


Politicians implored people to stop.

Sound familiar?

Last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an end to "un-Australian" stockpiling.

And shoppers accused of hoarding tinned items were singled out by fellow customers.

Market research company Nielsen recently estimated the average Australian household had "pandemic pantries' with enough long-life meals, bread mix, rice, flour and pasta to last two to three months.

Sales for those and other basics, such as canned soup and tinned vegetables, had more than doubled in the four weeks to late March compared with the same period last year.

General cleaners, disinfectants and dishwashing detergents were also stockpiled.

The panic buying and unprecedented demand of past weeks as Australians bunkered down at home led to supermarkets imposing one or two-pack purchase limits on highly sought after items.

Restrictions have now started easing as supplies ramp up and hoarding subsides.

But limits remain in force for several goods including toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitiser, pasta, flour and eggs.


Rationing posters from WWII. Picture: National Archives Australia
Rationing posters from WWII. Picture: National Archives Australia


During wartime rationing, adults were issued with 112 clothing coupons that had to last for a year. A man's suit required 38 coupons for instance, while socks required four.

In an age where home cooking was done from scratch, rationing for adults included butter at 1 pound (450g) per fortnight, meat at 2 ¼ pounds (1kg) per week, and tea at ½ pound (225g) per five weeks.

Deborah Tout-Smith, Museums Victoria's home and community senior curator, said those who lived through the rationing scheme had also experienced the Great Depression so were accustomed to "using every last scrap and not wasting food and making do with what they had".

Museums Victoria is currently documenting how we're dealing with the coronavirus crisis, from photographs of deserted streets to shop shutdown signs, social distancing notices, and advice to pay with cards rather than cash.

"I think in the future historians will still struggle to understand what motivated people to first strip supermarket shelves bare of toilet paper, and then become anxious about basic food staples, when the threat was actually an invisible virus," Ms Tout-Smith said.



Originally published as What caused Aussies to panic-buy?