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The Psychology of Panic Buying: Why Brits Are Scrambling for Gasoline

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  • Most of the blame for the chaos lies with "anxiety, anxiety, anxiety," according to Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, associate professor in consumer psychology at the U.K.'s Anglia Ruskin University.
  • She added that the "fear of missing out effect" kicks in when people see reports and images of others lining up for gasoline.
  • Dominik Piehlmaier, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Sussex's Business School, told CNBC that people go to gas stations and wait for hours just because they're worried.

LONDON — British drivers have been panic buying gasoline in recent days, leading to lengthy lines, gas station closures and concerns that doctors and teachers won't be able to get to work

Government ministers have continuously insisted that there is no shortage of fuel in the U.K., but lines to get to gas pumps have been rife since the end of last week.

The surge in demand has led to the price of a liter of unleaded gas going up by a penny since Friday, according to motoring organization the RAC. Meanwhile, U.K. retailer Halfords said the sale of jerry cans — which many motorists use to store gasoline — increased by 1,656% over the weekend.

Oil giant BP and Exxon Mobil's Esso confirmed Friday that they had temporarily closed a handful of their U.K. gas stations due to an industry-wide driver shortage which had impacted their supply chains. The problem become more widespread this week following days of consumers stockpiling gas. By Monday, some gas station operators had reported that 90% of their sites were dry, according to the U.K.'s Petrol Retailers Association.

On Tuesday, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News that the market was seeing "the first very tentative signs of stabilization in forecourt storage," although he acknowledged this would not yet be reflected in the lengthy lines for gas.

Why are people panic buying?

According to the British government, the U.K. has a strong supply of gasoline. The country's environment minister, George Eustice, told the BBC Monday that the only reason gas stations were running out of fuel was because of people who were buying gas when they didn't need it. 

But it's the logistical challenge of getting that supply to consumers that has created the problem. The U.K. has an estimated shortage of 100,000 truck drivers, meaning deliveries of gasoline and other goods are facing severe disruptions. The government has taken some steps to help stabilize the supply chain — including putting the army on standby to help deliver fuel — but unease over the situation is still present among consumers.

In fact, most of the blame for the chaos lies with "anxiety, anxiety, anxiety," according to Cathrine Jansson-Boyd, associate professor in consumer psychology at the U.K.'s Anglia Ruskin University.

"Panic buying is usually fueled by some level of uncertainty," she told CNBC in a phone call Tuesday. "We've had a lot of studies during [the pandemic] that show people have been very anxious — people aren't conscious of this, of course, but they have been very anxious. And that means that the underpinnings are already in place for people to start having higher levels of concern that surface."

Jansson-Boyd added that the "fear of missing out effect" kicks in when people see reports and images of others lining up for gasoline.

"People think, 'oh my goodness, if everybody else is doing this, should I do it?'" she explained.

"They keep hearing about it, but they don't hear a solution. If you think toilet paper and Covid at the beginning of the pandemic, that was the same thing. There was no solution [being offered]. People felt like they needed to do something, and even if it's not rational, we feel like unless we do something, things are going to go horribly wrong. So people go and buy things even when they don't need to."

The government has, in recent days, announced measures aimed at minimizing supply strains, such as temporary visas for truck drivers and suspending competition laws for the fuel industry. However, the three-month visas have been criticized as insufficient to lure foreign drivers, while fuel suppliers and ministers keep insisting that the issue does not lie with the actual refining and supply of gasoline.

"While the government is saying, don't panic, there is no shortage, people aren't hearing a solution," Jansson-Boyd told CNBC. "What people need to kind of calm down in this situation is well thought through structures that will reassure them that we have sorted this problem out, and that's just not coming through. That is just then increasing the anxiety, which means that people are going to continue with this kind of irrational panic buying unfortunately."

Dominik Piehlmaier, a lecturer in marketing at the University of Sussex's Business School, also told CNBC Tuesday that people go to gas stations and wait for hours just because they're worried.

Piehlmaier co-ran an experiment during the pandemic to assess what might prompt people to panic buy, finding that simply showing people images of empty supermarket shelves was enough to elevate their levels of anxiety and perceived danger.

"Seeing is believing, so when people see these images, it sparks a reaction, and the intensity of the reaction depends whether you've ever been in a similar situation where you felt vulnerable and helpless, or where you have the feeling that the magnitude of the situation is greater than your personal strength to overcome it," he said in a phone call. "In a situation where you know there is just no fuel around, people have this very strong reaction where they feel the urge to go out and seek a gas station that's still serving customers. So, in this sense, the government can say whatever they want, because as long as the images are out there, this is what will spark the reaction."

Images in the media or on social media platforms were more likely to resonate with the public than what politicians were telling them, Piehlmaier added, "because they saw it with their own eyes, and it's really hard to forget that."

What's causing the shortage?

The strain on fuel supply isn't actually caused by a shortage of gasoline, but is being brought about by a major lack of truck drivers.

The U.K.'s Road Haulage Association estimates that there is a gap of 100,000 truck drivers in Britain, which has been exacerbated by a multitude of factors including changes to employment regulation and the pandemic, but also Brexit.

Industry thinktank Driver Require estimates that 15,000 truck drivers from the EU have left the U.K. so far during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic also prevented new drivers entering the workforce. According to the RHA, only 15,000 people were able to successfully complete training in 2020 — that's 25,000 fewer than the previous year.

The British government has tried to alleviate the pressure caused by the exodus of EU drivers by introducing thousands of temporary visas in the run-up to Christmas. But without training or hiring drivers who can fill the void over the long term, experts are worried about the duration of the crisis.

"Frankly, the country's not geared up to have people buy five times as much fuel as they do in a given week, that's just not how the supply chain works. It's very difficult to repair it to meet that demand within a very short period of time," Joe Armitage, lead analyst for U.K. politics at Global Counsel, told CNBC's "Squawk Box Europe" on Tuesday.

"It's not really the case that the government is able to prepare in advance for something like this. The economy we're going into is very different to the one we exited. Some sectors are much larger than they were before, and the sectors that are larger are the ones that require HGV [truck] drivers. [Companies] with the profit margins are able to poach or retain their drivers through increased pay, but the ones with the slimmer profit margins — such as the downstream oil sector — just can't afford to do that, so they're suffering."

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