Empty shelves send a dangerous signal to the public about how our society is coping with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. This includes both physical shelves in stores and virtual shelves online.
That’s because we judge most situations we encounter with our senses. In this case, it’s with our eyes: if we see shortages of toilet paper, cleaning products and other daily essentials, it is a powerful indicator that something we rely on isn’t working.
What’s compounding the problem is how we are attempting to solve it. That’s by reassuring the public about the security of supply. We have heard endless explanations from politicians, manufacturers and retailers saying there’s plenty of supply and no need for us to be concerned.
The problem is that most of us already believe this. We don’t believe empty shelves are being created by supply-chain problems.
While it probably doesn’t hurt to reassure Canadians about the availability of essential products, or for governments to waive local noise bylaws so stores can be restocked through the early hours, none of this gets at what the public believes is really going on. Ipsos surveys show most Canadians believe what we are dealing with is a behavioural problem: hoarding.
The public doesn’t believe hoarding is each of us buying a few extra rolls of toilet paper to get us through the next couple of weeks. It’s over-buying out of panic or, at its worst, taking as much as you can get to sell at a profit to the desperate.
We don’t have to imagine profiteering going on. There are lots of examples being reported in the media, and anyone who takes the time can easily find examples of predatory overpricing of essentials on popular online retail sites.
What will help this situation is not more announcements about the safety of our supply chains. What we need now are some smarter behaviours from retailers. This includes online resellers. Now is the time to put in place some subtle rationing initiatives.
There’s no need to make a big deal about it, which could create additional panic. Just do what most retailers commonly do for a sale: limit the number of items available to each customer. We are used to policies like this, so it’s not out of the ordinary. For online resellers, keep a closer eye on what’s being sold on your site and quickly eliminate the predators.
Not only will retail practices like these reduce hoarding — you don’t panic-buy when you know it will be there — it will make the lives of profiteers more complicated. It will also help fill the shelves again. Full shelves will reduce public anxiety, show your customers you are protecting them and signal we are making progress in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
Darrell Bricker is the global CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs.