The role of social media to generate social proof as engaged society for stockpiling behaviour of customers during Covid-19 pandemic

Muhammad Naeem (Worcester Business School, University of Worcester, Worcester, UK)

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 26 October 2020

Issue publication date: 3 August 2021

3649

Abstract

Purpose

The use of social media and information exchange increased during Covid-19 pandemic because people are isolated and working from home. The use of social media enhances information exchange in a global society, therefore customers are uncertain and not in a better position to take decisions before the situation goes worst everywhere in the world. The current study helps to understand how social media facilitate social and global engagement and information exchange which ultimately leads to the development of the customer psychology of stockpiling. This study aims to develop a research framework which helps to understand the customer psychology of stockpiling during a global pandemic.

Design/methodology/approach

This study opted for a social constructionist approach because it can help to understand both individual and social subjective realities with respect to stockpiling behaviour due to the fear and risk of Covid-19 pandemic. For this purpose, the researcher collected data from 40 customers of UK retail stores who actively use social media. The data were collected during telephonic interviews and thematic analysis was used for data analysis.

Findings

Results highlighted that institutional communication and social public interpretation of uncertainties and risk enhanced misinformation and sensationalism through social media platforms; therefore, stockpiling behaviour increased during Covid-19 pandemic. The fear of items being out of stock, illness, misinformation, family fear and going out were some of the possible causes that led to the development of panic stockpiling behaviour. The global uncertainty proof, as well as a public social consensus for staying at home and protecting the future also increased customers’ intention to buy in bulk for their future. Although social media played an important role in transferring relevant and timely information, it also increased uncertainty and social proof which may have led to stockpiling of retail products.

Research limitations/implications

The results of this study are beneficial for understanding how Covid-19 creates and enhances uncertainties and risks at both global and national level which developed into customer panic stockpiling behaviour, even when there is no promotional scheme or decrease in prices. This study helps marketers understand the psychology of customer stockpiling during a global pandemic. This study also helps to understand the role of social media, which promotes social interpretations of uncertainties and risk which ultimately enhance panic stockpiling among customers.

Originality/value

Limited research is available which provides an understanding of how social media can play a role in socially generated uncertainties and risks, which enhance misinformation and sensationalism, as well as the development of stockpiling behaviour. This study provided a stockpiling behaviour model based on the theory of uncertainty and social proof. The results of this study are unique as there is limited literature available which connects social media, uncertainties and risk, Covid-19 pandemic and stockpiling behaviour among educated people.

Keywords

Citation

Naeem, M. (2021), "The role of social media to generate social proof as engaged society for stockpiling behaviour of customers during Covid-19 pandemic", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 24 No. 3, pp. 281-301. https://doi.org/10.1108/QMR-04-2020-0050

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction

Worldometer (2020) statistics revealed that there are approximately 14,967,842 cases while 664,333 people across the world have died from coronavirus. According to the UK Office for National Statistics (2020), approximately 50,335 deaths due to Covid-19 were reported between March and July 2020 in England and Wales. Due to the high death rate and COVID-19 cases, the prime minister of the UK ordered lockdown and advised people to stay at home. The outbreak of Covid-19 has brought changes to social, professional and psychological routines, such as financial hardship, self-isolation and stress, loss of jobs and physical and psychological health issues (Bradbury‐Jones and Isham, 2020; Danziger, 2020; Lufkin, 2020). As a result, people have perceived more uncertainty, anxiety, stress and fear, which led to some people stockpiling for themselves and their families. According to Shaw (2020), many UK retail stores’ websites crashed due to excessive online orders for groceries. Approximately 79 million orders for groceries were made in England and Wales due to fear and risk of Covid-19 (Reuters, 2020). A 17% increase in sales of groceries from March to July in the UK was recorded (Reuters, 2020). These statistics indicate that many UK-based customers are involved in stockpiling; however, there is limited understanding of the institutional, social, psychological, technological and global factors that played a role in the development of stockpiling behaviour.

According to Dholakia (2020), fear and anxiety during Covid-19 pandemic are possible reasons for the development of panic buying among consumers across the world. According to Erica Carranza (vice president of a consumer research firm), buying and consumption are strongly associated with identity, emotion, social connections, values and habits (Danziger, 2020); therefore it is important to understand these factors to understand stockpiling behaviour during Covid-19 pandemic. Fear and anxiety about illness, physical harm, financial hardship and out of stock items are some of the common causes (Dholakia, 2020) of stockpiling around the globe. A recent study highlighted that the Covid-19 pandemic has led to increased spending in retail stores, on foods and on credit cards (Baker et al., 2020). For example, supermarkets in New Zealand experienced an increase of 40% in spending on groceries as compared to the same day of the previous year (Lufkin, 2020). Malaysia recorded an 800% increase in sales of hand sanitizer compared to the same week of the previous year (Lufkin, 2020). Some famous e-commerce organizations, such as Etsy and eBay, have sold a packet of 20 masks for over US$100 due to panic buying (Lufkin, 2020). According to Repko (2020), 10 to 15% of grocery shopping had increased in the USA due to fear and risk of Covid-19.

Social media have increased the socialization and engagement of customers in information exchange and the development of specific behaviours (Carlson et al., 2018; Brough and Martin, 2020). Due to self-isolation and working from home during Covid-19 pandemic, people are more engaged and connected for support, information exchange and entertainment (Nabity-Grover et al., 2020). Messages such as keep distance, purchase sanitizers and wash your hands, stay at home and sneeze in your elbow (Finset et al., 2020) are part of the common information shared through social media by governments, celebrities, people, friends and health officials. These messages develop fear and uncertainty among people; therefore, some people preferred to stay at home. On the other hand, it has been found that the extensive use of social media increases rumours, misleading information and conspiracy theories (Depoux et al., 2020) which developed the customer psychology of stockpiling. Most previous studies that discussed reasons for an increase in customers’ purchases in retail stores mentioned coupons, discounts, rebates, free options, premiums, samples and promotional packages (Palazón and Delgado, 2009; Gilbert and Jackaria, 2002; Oly Ndubisi and Tung Moi, 2006; Teng, 2009). However, there is limited understanding of how fear, uncertainty, sensationalism and conspiracy theories influence consumer behaviour during Covid-19 crisis. Therefore, the present study intends to understand how institutional, social, psychological, technological and global factors through social media platforms play a role in UK customers’ development of stockpiling behaviour. The study aims to develop a research framework on stockpiling behaviour that helps to determine which factors contribute to the development of stockpiling behaviour among UK customers.

Literature review

The emerging technologies are not only becoming more ubiquitous but are also becoming highly amenable to the circulation of substantive information and media content (Pitt and Kietzmann, 2019; Sokolova and Kefi, 2020). Social media sites have the potential to rapidly distribute information, including news content, videos and embedded links, which has produced significant shifts in patterns of communication and usage of social media content (Ashley and Tuten, 2015; Naeem, 2020). Nowadays, Americans are increasingly engaged in active learning and information searching through social media in addition to the passive learning and information seeking that inevitably takes place within networked social environments (Gottfried and Shearer, 2016; Kim et al., 2014). Such fundamental shifts within online behaviours have increased expectations about social media adoption and utilization on behalf of different official actors including political officeholders, non-profit service-providing organizations and public agencies (Enli and Simonsen, 2018).

After becoming more expert at communicating through social media, social media users expect all actors to use similar means to communicate and interact with them (Alves et al., 2016; Arora and Sanni, 2019). Resultantly, social media have opportunities to sensationalize and misinterpret information that comes from different official actors including non-profit service-providing organizations, public agencies and political officeholders. If people become aware of a certain risk but have insufficient information about it, then this would lead to an increase in negative feelings and a sense of uncertainty (Gesser-Edelsburg and Shir-Raz, 2017; Kahlor, 2010). Social media play an important role in creating perceived risk through social interaction, global and local institutional communication and interpretation of general public opinion. This has increased the importance of “social proof theory” as it is believed that the risk of Covid-19 is being seemed and stockpiling behaviours are being developed via a social proof that is created through social media.

Regarding contradictory information around COVID-19 that emerges from highest government level, disinformation experts state that it is very important that those who have correct information are heard (Wang et al., 2019; Smith et al., 2020). Now social media is generating social tend to promote that content which garners high engagement. Due to uncertainties and risks of Covid-19, those posts spread more quickly which have negative experiences and criticism with respect to Covid-19. According to some studies, due to advent and rise of social media user, the online spread of sensationalism increased during Covid-19 Pandemic (Wang et al., 2019; Smith et al., 2020). Emotionally charged and shocking content is particularly good when gaining the attention of the general public is required. Misleading content appears to spread more quickly as everyone involves in the interpretation of shared information. Beyond acting as a community forum or an arena, experts say that social media platforms are changing the ways society responds to and perceives the COVID-19 outbreak (Gesser-Edelsburg and Shir-Raz, 2017; Kahlor, 2010). People take signals from other people and may panic buy on seeing other people’s posts regarding their panic buying.

Stewart (2020) explained uncertainty as a situation in which the odds of an adverse outcome are not known due to a lack of data, which, in turn, results in vagueness from the perspective of a decision maker during a global pandemic. It is a challenging task to address uncertain risks during Covid-19 pandemic (Krause et al., 2020). Although the scientific community believes that conceptualising uncertainties is impossible for the public (Stewart, 2020; Krause et al., 2020), there is still a need to develop effective approaches to communicate risks along with taking uncertainty into consideration. “Some analysts suggest that discussing uncertainties in health risk assessments might reduce citizens’ perceptions of risk and increase their respect for the risk-assessing agency” (Johnson and Slovic, 1995, p. 485). According to Maxim et al. (2012), laypeople raise different and more uncertainties as compared to those conversant with research. Uncertainty, in particular, did not bring out panic but an acknowledgement of uncertainty, on other hand, was reassuring, excluding certain cases. Studies, in general, reveal that people want the information to be completely transparent (Maxim et al., 2012; Krause et al., 2020).

The social proof theory was popularized by Robert Cialdini, a psychologist, who asserted that a person who is uncertain of the appropriate behaviour in a particular situation would look to other people’s responses and imitate their responses to inform their own actions (Cialdini, 1984). This suggests that people draw references for their actions from the actions of other people (Cialdini, 1984). In doing so, people believe that they are doing it right, as everyone is doing it like that, particularly during times of crisis. As the emphasis of this theory is on the significance of social influence, it is also known as informational social influence theory. There are four elements to social proof theory (Cialdini, 1984). Firstly, is uncertainty which feeds and activates the social proof mechanism. An uncertain person would look to people around them to deal with an unfamiliar situation. Secondly, is a similarity, which enhances and motivates the usage of social media. An observer who is ambivalent is likely to imitate the attitude and behaviour of people who they regard as similar to them, and thus are people to whom they can easily relate. Thirdly, is expertise: social proof becomes relevant when an uncertain person regard people surrounding them as knowledgeable about the uncertain situation or that other people are more familiar than they are with the situation. Thus, in such a situation, an observer regard people around them as possessing expertise and then tends to imitate their behaviour and actions. Fourthly, is number, which means that social proof works at its best when the proof is drawn from numerous people behaving and acting alike. It appears that the greater the number of people acting and behaving alike, the greater is the likelihood of the observer regarding them as acting knowledgeably.

There is limited understanding of how social media create and enhance social interpretations of uncertainties and risks associated with customers’ stockpiling behaviour during a global pandemic. There is much evidence that social media created a social proof of fear and panic; therefore, many people bought an extra stock which ultimately created a shortage of stock (Bradbury‐Jones and Isham, 2020; Danziger, 2020; Lufkin, 2020). The present study aims to develop a research framework based on social proof and uncertainty theories which may help to understand the customers’ social consensus on stockpiling behaviour. Uncertainty theories and social proof theories can help us to understand socially generated fear, uncertainty, risk, sensationalism, which have occurred due to socially and globally engaged people (Figure 1). People have their own social meanings and interpretations of risks which they extract based on socially generated fear, uncertainty, risk, sensationalism and conspiracy. A theoretical framework (Figure 1) was developed based on the extensive review of relevant literature. The concepts in this theoretical framework may be helpful to understand how stockpiling behaviour is developed and what interview questions must be asked to deeply explore stockpiling behaviour.

Research methodology

By taking the position of relativist ontology, it has been found that differences concerning social classes and races are defined, as well as experienced differently by different people (Lakoff and Johnson, 2003). Thus, assuming the same position of relativist ontology, the researcher argues that stockpiling behaviour also largely depends on the context in which one is operating, such as social networks, information sharing, uncertainties and risks in the presence of global pandemic. This is why a model of stockpiling behaviour during COVID-19 cannot be studied entirely in a single study to apply universally as different people in different contexts would have different perspectives or reasons for stockpiling. The belief of the relativists is that there are different perspectives of different observers about the same social phenomenon; for example, Collins (1983) argued that truth varies from time to time and from one place to another. Therefore, the researcher, being a social constructionist, also argues that there are different social realities in different countries fighting the same COVID-19 which cannot be understood objectively as social realities are subjectively defined. For example, when institutions and celebrities shared messages for staying at home, then people drew their own social meanings and some assumed that they needed extra things due to uncertainties and risks, such as extra groceries, medicines, masks and hand sanitizer. People drew their own social meanings of shared information and as a result, many giant retail stores had out-of-stock items during Covid-19.

As a social constructionist, the researcher is willing to understand the social patterns of stockpiling behaviour. As part of this effort, the researcher acknowledges that different people attach different levels of importance and different meanings to the same social phenomenon, which is evident from their exchange of information on social media about COVID-19. As a social constructionist, the researcher collected information about the role played by social media in giving rise to stockpiling behaviour among people. Thus, the researcher will collect the responses of people to understand and appreciate the different social experiences of people instead of undertaking to come up with universal laws to predict stockpiling behaviour; this is because any human action about any given situation is based on shared information and social interpretation of the situation (Figure 2).

Population and sampling

The researcher is aware of social structure, national culture, governmental regulations and the role social media plays in engaging national, local and global peoples. All these realities are subjective in nature and have different impacts on different people. According to the UK Office for National Statistics (2020), approximately 50,335 deaths due to Covid-19 were reported between March and July 2020 in England and Wales. As the death rate was expected to increase, the prime minister of the UK ordered a complete lockdown so that people stayed in their homes. The significance of social media increased due to social distancing; people wanted to maintain communication to know what was happening due to Covid-19 and what initiatives were being taken by institutions to control the situation. However, the self-isolation, fear of catching coronavirus during visits to retail stores and sensationalism through social media had a negative impact on the life of people during the global pandemic. Therefore, it has become important to understand these subjective realities.

The researcher joined social media groups on Facebook and linked with local UK retail customers through the links of friends. The researcher of this study identified some people who were continually involved in generating and exchanging content in relation to retail stores and current Covid-19 situation. Furthermore, the initially identified contacts for interviews also provided references to identify opinion leaders and experts on social media. A participation information sheet was provided to each participant and consent was signed by each participant before starting the interviews. The data collection, analyzes and storage of data from this research were treated as per the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) of UK. The study selected 40 UK-based customers based on the following inclusion criteria:

  • They should be 18 years of age or plus.

  • They must have a social media presence.

  • They must have at least one social media account for information generation or consumption.

  • They volunteer to provide information to the researcher.

The researcher used a purposive sampling technique which is used when the respondents to be recruited possess knowledge about the subject of study (Polgar and Thomas, 2011). The data were collected through telephone-based interviews due to social distancing because of Covid-19. The researcher followed European GDPR guidelines concerning research ethics and provided the respondents with consent form and information about the objectives of the research.

Data analysis

To ensure transparency and rigour in research, the researcher used a reflective diary, audit trail and two coding cycles, following the recommendation of Auerbach and Silverstein (2003). This is shown in Figure 2. The data analysis was conducted by using five-stage analysis. These stages comprised: familiarizing of patterns, themes identification, indexing, charting and mapping. The researcher carefully prepared the interview transcripts and maintained them anonymously as per research ethics. NVivo (Version 12) was used by the researcher to organize and carefully code the transcripts so that data analysis could be conducted. Saldana (2011) observed that two coding cycles need to be maintained to ensure the quality of data. The first cycle involved descriptive coding which comprised coding a single letter to an entire paragraph or even a page (Saldaña and Omasta, 2016). This helped in understanding the reasons underlying stockpiling behaviour among people following social media information exchange. The second process of coding was holistic whereby the coding portions remained either the same following analytic memos or were reconfigured following the coding scheme (Saldana, 2011). Holistic coding enables the researcher to observe basic themes in data instead of analysing them line by line. A stockpiling behaviour model was developed based on major themes, codes and keywords of collected and analyzed data (Figures 3 and 4).

Resultantly, the researcher could identify relationships between different themes on the subject of stockpiling behaviour in the wake of the pandemic. The themes which finally emerged were authenticated by interpreting the codes and keywords under social constructionist and relativist perspective on the subject. This entire process was followed religiously to maintain the transparency and rigour of the research. Further, to maintain the authenticity of the research, an entire audit trail was prepared and maintained by the researcher whereby the emergent, as well as final themes, were documented by the researcher. This is helpful in asserting the transparency of the research.

Findings and analysis

Main theme 1: institutional information

Code 1: political role.

Keywords: differences in information, lack of trust in politicians, the difference in strategies, differences between politicians and scientists

The increasing number of cases of Covid-19 and health officials’ communications regarding limited organizational capacity and resources increased fear among people regarding staying at home and buying extra stock for their uncertain future. Some people believed that their government failed to take immediate steps regarding how they can deal with the demand for necessities of life and health-related issues. Initially, there were differences between the views of politicians and the views of scientists regarding whether to do a lockdown, the economy and the financial burden on people. People believed that there should be communication from credible sources regarding how they can handle the demand for groceries and health crisis. Evidence gathered from interviews included: Interviewee 18 said:

I was afraid because our hospitals and health ministries shared that our hospitals now have limited capacity, therefore, stay at home. This was the reason to buy more and stay at home.

Interviewee 23 said:

I believe that politicians are responsible for these out-of-stock items and public panic issues because there are clear contradictions and differences in strategies which created negativity and uncertain situation for us.

The role of institutional information has become important especially when people face any national or global pandemic situation. People choose politicians so that they can give solutions to their problems, especially when they are facing life risk and insecurities about the necessities of life. However, some people believe that they cannot trust politicians as the politicians’ personal and national interests sometimes contradict the personal interests of individuals. For example, Interviewee 13 shared, “I believe that people don’t trust in politicians, so we went with public opinion which was to buy enough things to stay at home”. Some participants shared that politicians hide the truth as they sometimes have diverse interests, therefore, it is more useful to follow the public because they are well aware of the uncertainties of Covid-19 and political interests. For example, Interviewee 15 stated:

I believe to follow the public rather than politicians because they hide the true things. They love the economy rather than people, so it was better following the public to buy enough things.

Code 2: information context.

Keywords: timely information, the difference in opinions, recommendation to stay home, social distance

The information context refers to whether the information is delivered at the right time to the right people so that they can plan for the future regarding buying and staying at home. Some of the participants shared that they did not receive timely information from the government; therefore, they followed their close friends and local people for guidance on buying and protecting themselves during the global pandemic. They shared that there are differences in information context: the government communicated that everything is under control, but they saw a lot of evidence on social media that people were buying for the future because many businesses closed. For example, Interviewee 3 said:

I think the information shared by the government was not at the correct time and even the information itself was not true, therefore, I went with the majority of people who recommended buying and staying at home to protect myself, family and the local community.

Interviewee 3 said:

There was a difference in opinion of government official regarding everything under control, suddenly we saw many businesses are closing and people buying due to the uncertainty of shortage.

Some participants shared that they received more valuable and timely information from their friends rather than the government and other institutions. They shared that their friends made early recommendations to them, that many stores are going out of stock due to high demand for goods and uncertainties in a global pandemic, therefore it is a good decision to buy now. For example, Interviewee 9 said:

There is no doubt that timely information shared through our friends using social media regarding the shortage of stock saved us. Because as we bought more items to stay home, we also saw that many retailers were out of stock and many customers shared on social media about insecurities of food.

Some shared that initially, the government shared that everything is under control but, when the number of cases reached thousands, then they showed their frustration and locked down everything except retail stores where there were measures to maintain social distancing during buying. For example, Interviewee 3 said:

When the cases reached thousands in our country and government officials showed their frustration for controlling things, then they implemented lockdown and issued mandatory social distancing (i.e. two metres away during shopping).

Main theme 2: public risk perception

Code 1: public consensus.

Keywords: friend’s recommendation, expert recommendation, a recommendation from the crowd, similar opinion, persuasion

When there is an uncertain situation at a global and national level and people have no plan during a period with a high level of risk and insecurities, then they love to follow friends who are credible sources for them and help them to take optimal decisions. They believe in those who have a high level of knowledge, who are credible and trustworthy and who share thoughts that are acceptable to the majority of people. They believe that persuasion from their close circle of friends can save them from hard times, such as a shortage of stock and illness. For example, Interviewee 4 said:

The self-isolation at home increased use of social media and we trust our close sources who shared empty shelves of many retail stores, limits for picking stock and recommendations for us to buy soon before the situation gets worse. Similar opinions from friends are the reason that our family started buying more food items.

Interviewee 27 stated:

“All of my friends and social media public suggested to buy enough items for staying home as many of our close friends and local community people were frightened they would catch Covid-19 when they were in public places; therefore, I followed the recommendations of friends and local people”.

Communication regarding the incapacities of health organizations and officials also created public risk perception and consensus to take some immediate steps for protecting themselves and their families. Participants shared that health officials warned that they have limited resources to deal with an increasing number of Covid-19 cases, therefore, it is more useful for people to stay at home. For example, Interviewee 8 highlighted:

The health officials and people who are affected by Covid-19 warned that we don’t have the capacity to treat increasing cases, therefore, people should be careful when they go out to buy as the chances of dying without treatment are increased now.

People started stockpiling so that they could stay at home for long periods without taking the risk of a shortage of food or other necessities of life. For example, Interviewee 11 shared:

I saw most of the experts, friends and social media users were suggesting on social media that do not come out for anything. It’s very dangerous; so people follow each other and buy more for staying in their home.

Code 2: public fear.

Keywords: fear of stock, fear of illness, fear of late buying, family fear, fear to go out.

Social media played an important role in creating social interactions and exchanging information which created public fear regarding stock, illness, accurate information, family and visiting outside, such as retail stores. For example, Interviewee 32 shared, “I believe social media created public fear of illness, therefore people started accumulating stock and uncertain buying which created an excessive burden on retail stores for managing supply”. People shared that it is human nature to protect in a crisis situation; therefore, people’s fear of the increasing number of Covid-19 cases developed a situation of stockpiling behaviour. People found evidence that their nearest stores were going out of stock; therefore, it was the best time to accumulate goods. Interviewee 26 highlighted:

It’s human nature to protect themselves and their close ones (i.e. family); therefore, people started more buying to remain at home and not go outside for groceries. There is a fear to go out and chance contact with Covid-19.

Social media users shared evidence, such as videos, posts and pictures, which showed that many retail stores were out of stock. This shared evidence created public fear and, as a result, many people started stockpiling because of the fear of stock shortage and the fear of getting ill if they went outside many times for groceries. For example, Interviewee 40 said, “when we see evidence of out-of-stock stores in neighbouring cities, we think we should definitely secure the necessary things for our families”. Interviewee 17 shared:

Buying stock in high quantities was based on the fear which was generated from information that is shared by our government. The government said to us to keep a distance and to stay at home, so we can only do that when we have enough stock at home.

Main theme 3: global uncertainty

Code 1: tendency.

Keywords: do something, directions, excessive desire, negativity, social trend.

The tendency is something which can create direction or a desire to do a specific action after following people through social media channels. For example, when people saw an increasing number of cases of Covid-19, as well as the death rate in China, USA and Italy, then they had a tendency to create a backup plan to stay at home because it was an uncertain situation at a global level. They started to buy extra necessities of life so that they should not face the same situation in the UK. For example, Interviewee 31 shared:

I have seen many severe cases in Italy and China, so it was better to do something now for staying at home rather than to get Covid-19 because of buying groceries.

Interviewee 21 highlighted:

Uncertainty and negativity created by the people of the USA, Italy and China; that’s why I follow people on social media. They created videos and posts which gave directions to buy more and stay at home as stores are going out of stock and the death rate is out of control.

People shared that many social celebrities around the world sent messages through social media to use hand sanitizer and masks. They warned their followers to not go outside during the global pandemic. The shared statistics, posts and videos created a desire to buy extra hand sanitizer, masks and other necessities for protecting lives. The shared communication of social celebrities generated social proof of global uncertainty; therefore, many of their followers started stockpiling. For example, Interviewee 6 highlighted:

Social celebrities around the world told their followers to wash their hands, use a mask and stay at home. They tell me what they will do, definitely, they have an excessive desire to buy sanitizer, mask and other necessary items so that they can protect their lives.

Interviewee 39 said:

The statistics, videos and posts from the US regarding things out of stock generated a trend to do something now, so we bought medicine and food in an emergency before the situation got worse in the UK.

Code 2: sense of urgency.

Keywords: sudden buying, uncertainty, fear of a rise in prices, shortage of supply, more demand.

Sense of urgency means to buy stock without any proper planning in advance due to the uncertain situation at the global level. It was found that some people started sudden buying for sanitizers when it was recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, later, when they received accurate information, they found that only those hand sanitizers that have the highest quantity of alcohol will be effective. As a result, many people posted complaints about the WHO because they felt that the WHO did not provide full information. For example, Interviewee 13 shared:

Suddenly we bought many hand sanitizers for protection purpose as WHO advised us to wash hands. We bought hand sanitizers due to urgency of Covid-19. However, after some time, we saw many stories at the global level where people told only those sanitizers will work that has 60% alcohol.

Other people shared that they lost faith in politicians and WHO authorities, as they did not have enough information and people haphazardly, started their backup plans for buying and staying at home. For example, Interviewee 18 said:

“This thing further reduces our trust in WHO and health officials as they have not sufficient information initially”. Interviewee 22 stated, “when we see Covid-19 cases are increasing in millions in the world. The experts and people at the global level are creating messages on social media to stay at home so that was best for us, immediately buying things in sufficient quantity to stay at home”.

Participants stated that the increasing death rate and the difference in opinions at the global level created further uncertainty and increased their burden. Therefore, people preferred to follow their close sources who urgently recommended them to buy because there was a lot of evidence of shortages of stock and daily price increases. People shared social proof regarding many local stores which have not enough rush for buying but now they are busy for groceries due to the fear of shortage of goods at the global level. For example, Interviewee 20 shared:

There are differences in global opinion for Covid-19, therefore many politicians put the burden of increasing death rate on WHO; therefore we trust our friends who told us to buy more as price may rise or other people may demand more for staying at home.

Interviewee 24 stated:

I saw many local stores in our area which have normal rush before COVID-19 but now these stores out of stock even when these stores are charging high prices. I think the main reasons is the fear of out of stock so many people start buying from everywhere for basic necessities.

Discussion

Previous studies shared that social media can play an important role in the sharing of emotions and feelings, health information, significant news, sarcasm and fear during an outbreak (Ahmed et al., 2018; Pieri, 2019; Merino, 2014), but they did not provide evidence regarding the role of social media to create social proof for stockpiling behaviour during the fear of a global pandemic. A study reported that the Covid-19 pandemic increased panic buying for some consumption categories but also decreased consumption for the hospitality industry (Hall et al., 2020). Many marketing-related studies have described the importance of social media for social communication, social networks, social influence (Treviño and Pineda Garelli, 2019; Mazzoli et al., 2019; Hallock et al., 2019), customer engagement (Lima et al., 2019), negative information, false claims, social sharing, praise or revenge (Tuten and Perotti, 2019; Whiting et al., 2019), but these studies did not provide an understanding of how social media can play an important role in raising insecurities about visiting retail stores for necessities of life, health risks, perceived risk and social proof which increased stockpiling behaviour. Therefore, the present study aims to address this gap by exploring the role of social media to generate social proof in an engaged society for stockpiling behaviour of customers during Covid-19 pandemic.

The information-sharing started from the public sector, but it created differences in thoughts and understanding among people. This situation occurred because people distrusted the authorities (i.e. WHO at world level and politicians at the local level); therefore, it raised uncertainty and fear. Due to these differences and proof of uncertainty, the public got the opportunity to create sensationalism by manipulating information through social networking platforms. For example, people shared proof of uncertainties by capturing evidence of empty shelves in different grocery stores, which increased stockpiling. Furthermore, other people shared evidence that they visited some specific stores where they got Covid-19 because many workers of retail stores were already affected by this disease; therefore, it was a recommendation that other people stockpile in bulk and stay at home. Others shared that it was better to stockpile now before the situation got worse and there was a need to stay home as much as possible.

Some shared that as people went outside for stock buying, they created risk for their families, therefore, it was safest to buy at once. Moreover, people perceived buying stock late to be a risk because there was a strong probability that they would be unable to get the necessary items from local retail stores. Some shared that it was not risk-free to go outside as the employees of the nearest local retail store were affected and stores’ authorities sealed it for sanitizing. These are some examples which increased fear among people and people started stockpiling in bulk. The information shared by public health hospitals and patients played an important role in creating fear in different contexts and stay at home. For example, some patients created goodbye videos in which they shared how they were affected due to Covid-19 and what others should do if they did not want to face the same situation. Some patients recorded videos based on day 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., so that other people could understand how bad the situation was and how they could protect themselves from it. Some nurses shared videos in which they were weeping and asking people to protect themselves and their health workers. Furthermore, doctors and health ministers shared that they do not have enough capacity to deal with an increasing number of Covid-19 cases so please stay at home. These are some of the stories which generated the perceived risk among people so that they stayed at home and saved each other.

Other studies revealed that discounts, rebates, free options, premiums, coupons, samples and other promotional packages can motivate customers to buy goods in bulk for future use (Palazón and Delgado, 2009; Gilbert and Jackaria, 2002; Oly Ndubisi and Tung Moi, 2006; Teng, 2009), but did not provide evidence regarding how social proof on social media and life-threatening risks can generate stockpiling and bulk buying from retail stores. It is not possible to stay at home without first accumulating the necessities of life; therefore, people started stockpiling so that they did not have to go outside. The interpretations of the messages of patients, health organizations and politicians created sensationalism, which ultimately increased people’s perception of risk and their insecurities. The shared videos and posts on social media raised the perceived risk and insecurities among the public and, as a result, they tried to follow the consensus of their social circle and crowd. Due to insecurity about the availability of stock, shortage of stocks, insecurities of food for the future and insecurities of health, people started to follow similarity of opinions and the wisdom of friends and the crowd. The majority of crowd and friends agreed on stockpiling so they could stay at home as much as possible. These insecurities generated social proof through social media and people started to follow each other. The insecurities and stockpiling trend increased social proof of a shortage of stock in many retail stores, which ultimately created panic and stockpiling behaviour.

Stay at home, stay home and stay safe, stay at home is the safest choice for all, going out of home is not risk-free, stay home if you care for your family and stay at home and protect your local communities are examples of the advice given by the WHO, local authorities and people, which created fear among people during Covid-19 pandemic. Public fear about stock, increasing illness and death rates, family stories and recommendations to not go out increased fear and, as a result, the public started stockpiling in bulk. For example, buying sanitizer with a high level of alcohol (i.e. 60%), using wipes, wearing masks, social distancing (i.e. stay 2 metres or two arms away), checking the temperature of people entering retail stores, sneezing and coughing in your arms, self-isolating if you have mild symptoms (i.e. cough, temperature, sneeze, throat pain), store limit to pick up groceries are common things shared through social media platforms, which raised further uncertainties and fear and, as a result, people started buying in bulk so they could stay at home. The stockpiling in bulk also increased demand for the necessities of life and, as a result, many shelves were empty and the websites of big retailers went down due to heavy online traffic and orders. The uncertainty and proof of uncertainty created a global social consensus for staying at home and stockpiling.

Contribution

Many previous studies helped understanding of customers’ engagement and how coupons, discounts, rebates, free options, premiums, samples and other promotional packages (Palazón and Delgado, 2009; Gilbert and Jackaria, 2002; Oly Ndubisi and Tung Moi, 2006; Teng, 2009) can motivate customers to buy goods in bulk for future use. However, there is insufficient evidence regarding how a global pandemic can raise demand for goods and customers’ stockpiling behaviour even when prices are either stable or increasing and there is no promotional discount. Therefore, the present study has contributed to the existing literature by offering a stockpiling behaviour model which shows how and why uncertainties, perception of risks, institutional communication and global uncertainty proof through social media platforms can engage customers and lead to the development of stockpiling behaviour. The theory of uncertainty may be helpful to understand customers’ stockpiling behaviour during a global pandemic. Some studies confirmed that when people have insufficient information and perceive high risk then they have more negative feelings and uncertainties (Gesser-Edelsburg and Shir-Raz, 2017; Huurne and Gutteling, 2008; Kahlor, 2010; Shulman et al., 2015), which can force them to take help from those who are credible, experienced and have better knowledge for future decisions. Some studies highlighted that when people have inadequate information to deal with uncertain challenges and risks (Van Asselt and Vos, 2008; (Einhorn and Hogarth, 1985; Wynne, 2002) then they gather evidence and follow others to either avoid risk or take optimal purchase decisions. Figure 5 is developed based on the findings of this study. It provides a clear picture of how stockpiling behaviour is developed during Covid-19 pandemic.

Social media platforms played an important role in enhancing social interactions where people shared why they did not believe institutional communications. For example, they shared that initially both health and government communications stated that the situation (health and necessities of life) was under control; however, there were many videos, posts and pictures shared by social media users where there were empty shelves, which created a social proof of uncertainty. There is social consensus among the public that the UK government failed to take immediate steps regarding rising demand for necessities of life and health-related issues. People shared that the government did not lockdown initially because they cared about the economy and businesses, but when the situation went out of control then they took the lockdown decision which forced people to buy extra stock and stay in their homes. Findings reveal that people do not trust politicians because politicians have personal and national interests which sometimes contradict the personal interests of individuals; therefore, people followed their friends and crowd who advised them to buy extra stock and stay at home. The study also highlighted that people did not trust the WHO because, initially, it did not give information regarding what is a useable sanitizer and how governments could control the uncertain situation. As a result, many people bought quantities of sanitizer that could not protect them from Covid-19 (Figure 5).

The study used a social proof theory that highlighted that people usually do not have enough knowledge to take optimal purchase decision, especially when they face an uncertain situation and have a high perception of risk. The social proof theory guide people usually followed others (i.e. wisdom of friends and wisdom of the crowd) who are also in an uncertain situation, but they decided what is the best possible option to remain to save. For example, the findings of this study revealed that social media helped people to engage with those who had better knowledge, who was credible and trustworthy and who shared thoughts that were acceptable to the majority of people. Social media helped people to follow their close circle, who recommended buying extra items for staying at home. It is important to note that UK customers’ fear about stock, illness, family and visits outside were some of the key reasons why they developed stockpiling behaviour. Social media played an important role in creating a globally engaged society; many social celebrities and members of the public shared messages through social media regarding buying sanitizer, masks and necessities of life for staying at home. Therefore, their shared information, as well as interpretations of institutional communications created a more uncertain situation and, as a result, people started to buy extra hand sanitizer, masks and other necessities for protecting their lives.

The first contribution is to provide explicit understanding regarding how institutional communication created social interpretations of uncertainty and perceptions of risk and, as a result, people started to buy extra stock for protecting themselves and their families. This situation further increased demand for goods and stockpiling behaviour and people started to share images of empty shelves in retail stores. These empty shelves created further social proof of uncertainties and fear about the shortage of stock and, as a result, panic stockpiling increased. The UK government and health communication authorities recommended lockdown and social distancing due to limited health resources; therefore, people were worried about the shortage of stock, illness, inadequate future, family and visits outside, which forced them to buy and stay at home as much as possible. The second major contribution of this study is to use the theory of uncertainty and social proof which provided understanding regarding how social networking and social engagement through social media created sensationalism and, as a result, people started buying extra. When people saw the evidence from the USA, Italy and China regarding death and increasing activity in retail stores, then they started stockpiling so that they should not have to go outside and to save their lives. The third major contribution of this study is to highlight the role of social media which created social proof that helped people to take optimal purchase decisions during a global pandemic. Social media helped to take social proof of numbers and opinions from friends, public and experts who recommended buying extra and staying at home.

Future research

There are many relevant propositions which can be developed and tested in future studies. For example, future studies can test the role of institutional communication, which created further uncertainty and risk perception and are positively associated with stockpiling behaviour. The social consensus among friends and crowd to stay at home and buy extra things is also the main reason that people started stockpiling. People trusted close social circles who recommended to stay at home and buy extra things. Therefore, we can argue that trust in close sources and recommendations from close sources was one of the main reasons for stockpiling. Global uncertainty arises when people see videos and messages from all over the world where there is advice to stay home and do not visit public places. Furthermore, there were many viral videos from all over the world that showed people quarrelling over retail store items. The global uncertainty through social media helped to enhance stockpiling behaviour. The fear of a shortage of stock and illness can be positively associated with stockpiling among customers. These are some of the suggested propositions which may be tested by future studies through collecting data from multiple sources and statistical data analysis methods.

Although this study has provided substantial ideas to generate social proof as an engaged society for stockpiling behaviour of customers during Covid-19 pandemic, it is not free from limitations which may provide directions to future studies. Although the stockpiling behaviour model is developed based on semi-structured interviews and thematic analysis, qualitative methods cannot confirm the reliability and validity of the stockpiling behaviour model. As a result, future researchers have an opportunity to develop hypotheses and test this model to generate findings which can be generalized to a larger population. Future studies can use fear appeal and risk perception theories and models that can guide how fear appeal regarding out-of-stock items can generate stockpiling behaviour among customers. There is a need to collect primary data for verifying the fear appeal regarding missing an opportunity of buying now or late buying can generate the panic situation.

Figures

Theoretical framework

Figure 1.

Theoretical framework

Research process

Figure 2.

Research process

Stockpiling behaviour model development process

Figure 3.

Stockpiling behaviour model development process

Stockpiling behaviour (themes, codes and keywords)

Figure 4.

Stockpiling behaviour (themes, codes and keywords)

Stockpiling behaviour model

Figure 5.

Stockpiling behaviour model

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Corresponding author

Muhammad Naeem can be contacted at: dr.muhammadnaeem222@gmail.com

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