Western cultures and consumers are generally used to having everything at our disposal. We are not used to having to compete for essentials. In a way, the COVID-19 crisis is like a global scaling of the pre-hurricane stockpile phenomenon--the only difference is there is no true end in sight.
When items are scarce, we have to compete for them. And it appears that right now we are resorting to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to motivate our behavior and consumption. Before people isolate themselves (either mandated or by choice), the situation places us all back at the bottom of the pyramid. As we satisfy each level of the pyramid, only then do we look to satisfy the next level of need.
First, we have the physiological needs, the essentials and obvious things. We need to eat, we need to drink, we need to sleep. So you have your food, your non-perishable items, canned goods, etc. We get comfort from knowing we have these items 'in stock' because they are the basics of survival. But we're not used to competing for them, which is why we are taking more than we need. We get to be in control of a very small piece of an uncontrollable situation. The toilet paper craze falls under this umbrella. And if you think about it, it makes sense. Our basic, physiological needs are to eat/drink/sleep/and--as parents everywhere say to their toddler's in training--"go potty." Guys, we all do it. So why are there more people stockpiling TP than, say, canned corn? Because there are substitutes for canned corn but not toilet paper. Most products we buy have alternatives. If the canned corn is gone, you get canned beans, or dried beans, or anything else in the canned food section. For toilet paper, that's our only option. The other reason for the stockpiling is that messaging is vague. At one point we need to be prepared for 2 weeks, but that has since changed to 2 months, and that could extend even further. So as people shopped before bottling up inside their houses, they went from thinking ‘what do I need for 2 weeks?’ to ‘what do I need…indefinitely?’ A huge question mark replaced the normal set amount of time we plan for. This is why and where the hurricane analogy ends. So why don't we get the same comfort from stocking up on, say deodorant, toothpaste, etc.? It is not the same level need. It is important, sure, but not in that same, primal way.
The next level of the pyramid is still in the pre-isolation phase: safety and security. This one is obvious: medicines, prescriptions, hand sanitizer, cleaners, vitamins, anti-bacterial wipes, Pedialyte, etc. Things to keep us safe, healthy, and secure. Really in both the first two levels, we are seeing the tragedy of the commons play out. Instead of everyone sharing our common resources so we all have enough, the human instinct is to look out for yourself. Take hand sanitizers and respiratory masks. When people bought more than they needed—particularly the masks, others had none—including hospitals where they were actually needed. Essentially, the collective good suffers at the expense of the individual. Like the toilet paper, the idea should be for everyone to be safe and comfortable, but it is human nature to look out for yourself and your family. Another product that has seen huge sales in this crisis is guns and ammunition. People want to protect their stuff, their family, and we’ve all seen enough post-apocalyptic movies to know what happens when chaos ensues. My best guess is that creature comforts will be next at your local grocery store (bubble bath, candles, art supplies, etc.). Knowing you have your stockpile, you can pivot to making the situation somewhat comfortable.
So now you are self-selecting to stay in your house for anywhere from 2 weeks until the big question mark. You have met your basic needs and you feel as secure as you can. Now you realize that you are missing…people. Connection, social engagement, a sense of belonging—the third level of the pyramid. People still want to interact and they will—just virtually. As movie theaters, bars, restaurants, clubs, and gyms close down, people cannot go out for entertainment or social gatherings. The entertainment fix is simple. It’s 2020 and we have more in-home entertainment options than ever before. Some companies have strategically adapted. For example, Disney + pushed up their release dates for The Rise of Skywalker and Frozen 2 in an attempt to drive traffic to their platform over competitors. But what about the human interaction part? Enter social media. These platforms have seen increased volume over the last several days and that is likely to continue—particular with regard to video uploads and interactive media. Further, savvy brands are recognizing—and filling—this need. For instance, Netflix has a new function - Netflix Party – which offers an interactive forum to talk about the show with your group of friends as you watch.
Right now, on March 18, it seems we are achieving that level 3 need. As the need to belong and have social interactions is fulfilled, I believe we will move to level 4 and seek esteem and accomplishment—most likely through social media as well. You can see this starting to happen already. People post on social media their 'goals for the day'. They want to be held accountable for achieving something, be it finishing the laundry, reading a new book, or fixing the kitchen sink. We want our friends to know what we are doing so we can gather likes, comments, GIFS, and video replies to help validate our feelings that we are using this time for something constructive.
Finally, we are realizing that, if this is truly for a long period of time, we should make the most of it. People have already begun (and this will happen more) to look at this as an opportunity to self-actualize, to be creative, to achieve their full potential at the top of the pyramid. We already see people doing online yoga courses and sending the instructor money through PayPal, downloading a language app to finally learn Spanish. Personally, I posted that I want to learn one new song on the guitar every day. We want to be our best selves. This will manifest in other ways too. Even though your hair appointment is cancelled, you still Venmo your stylist to either pay up front for a later date or just to help them ‘get by’. This will probably happen across many service industries which are going to be hit incredibly hard by this. There is a lot of positive buzz about purchasing gift cards for local businesses, which can keep them generating revenue throughout the crisis. These are the consumption behaviors that we will do as a society when we want to be our best selves, to reach our full potential. I also like this because it is an optimistic viewpoint for a situation that veers toward pessimism. If we can get to the point of doing good for the sake of others, we will have left the tragedy of the commons behind and be actively working collectively for the greater good.