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After pandemic shortages, this week's run on gas no surprise to Virginia Tech professor

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After the pandemic spurred shortages of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other goods last year, a Virginia Tech professor who studies consumer behavior said it’s not surprising that a gasoline supply disruption prompted a rush to fill tanks this week.

On Tuesday, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency in response to a cyberattack targeting the Colonial Pipeline, which provides fuel to many Virginia retailers. The attack prompted a temporary shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline, though it has now resumed operations.

Broderick Turner, an assistant professor of marketing at Tech’s Pamplin College of Business, said when consumers have experienced uncertainty or some kind of shortage in the past, it sticks with them. When it happens again, their brain says it could last and they ought to react. And on the heels of the pandemic, it’s a familiar feeling for many.

“We have lived through a pandemic,” he said. “People weren’t irrational in thinking that things would go away. Because, again, if everyone else is competing, if everyone else has this scarcity mindset and they rush out to buy all the toilet paper, there’s going to be less toilet paper.”

Turner said there are two ways to think about panic buying.

Some people are driven by a scarcity mindset, in which they use competitive and zero-sum thinking, he said. They think: If others are getting gas, there’s less available for me. So they head to the station in hopes of beating others.

Others are motivated by a deep uncertainty about the availability of gas in the future, more so than on that day, Turner said. Those are the consumers who filled plastic containers with gas for later use.

Turner drew a comparison to research he’d done on food insecurity which found that, when people believe that their next meal is uncertain, they eat more filling foods or buy foods with a longer shelf life.

“Seeing one of the emergency orders could make you feel that there’s scarcity, it could make you feel that things are uncertain,” Turner said.

Providing additional information with an emergency order, such as how long it’s expected to last or what the plans are to address it, could help reduce hoarding, he said, and “make people feel less competitive, more neighborly.”

While a perceived scarcity of any item — take nonessentials like Beanie Babies, for example — can create competition and hoarding, Turner said research seems to indicate that shortages of utilitarian items prompt more of this behavior.

“We should expect this for toilet paper, for food, for gasoline, for medicine,” he said. “We can expect there to be a stronger effect when it’s a perceived scarcity and it’s something I need to survive, or I perceive I need to survive.”

When trying to understand consumer behaviors, Turner said his number one tip is not to assume that “people are stupid or dumb, or doing something irrational.” A better approach would be to try to understand how they arrived at the decision, because there’s typically a reason.

Even Turner filled up his gas tank after his wife asked whether it was full.

“All this studying and my brain is just as human as anyone else’s,” he said.

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Casey Fabris covers business for The Roanoke Times, where she has been a reporter since 2015. Previously, Casey covered Franklin County. She can be reached at (540) 981-3234 or casey.fabris@roanoke.com.

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