Politics·Analysis

Canadians are being asked to stop panic-shopping. Are they listening?

The herd mentality displayed by consumers caught up in COVID-19-inspired panic-buying has — in the understated language preferred by the Retail Council of Canada — "not been beneficial."

The key point may come when new border restrictions come into effect

Nearly empty shelves in a grocery store in North Vancouver, B.C. on Saturday, March 14, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The herd mentality displayed by consumers caught up in COVID-19-inspired panic-buying has — in the understated language preferred by the Retail Council of Canada — "not been beneficial."

The behaviour of those consumers in the coming days and weeks will have an enormous impact on the unfolding pandemic crisis — especially in light of the extraordinary decision by the Canadian and U.S. federal governments to clamp down on non-essential travel across the border.

When that new border measure takes effect this week, it will be a watershed moment — and not just because of the $2.7 billion in goods and services that move between the two nations every day.

It also will amount to a public test of how closely Canadians have been listening to the reassurances of federal and provincial leaders, government officials and experts.

'Survivalist DNA'

Over the last few days, federal ministers have taken every opportunity to urge people not to repeat last week's spasm of panic buying, which saw grocery store shelves stripped bare of some staples. With Wednesday's border announcement, those same officials went out of their way to assure the public that essential goods and products will continue to flow.

The next few days and weeks will demonstrate whether that message is getting through, said one expert.

"The story is moving so quickly, around how the patient count is increasing and how shoppers are going to react to that, despite the reassurances that are coming from public officials ... 'Don't panic-buy, don't stock up, don't pantry-load,'" said Marty Weintraub, who leads the national retail practice in Canada at the consulting and analysis firm Deloitte.

"Will shoppers listen? I think that's going to be the key question — whether shoppers put their faith in what they're being told, or what their DNA as survivalists might be telling them to do."

Karl Littler, a senior vice president of public affairs at Retail Council of Canada, said he doubts that the new restrictions on the Canada-U.S. border will drive consumers into another round of frenzied shopping. He said he's confident the messages of reassurance are being heard and understood.

There is, he said, plenty of inventory in the system. And while he conceded that "unforeseen outcomes could lead to irrational behaviour [by consumers] at some level," he's confident that people will remain calm and carry on as retailers wrestle with supply chains that sustained an extraordinary shock last week.

Laying out the details of the Liberal government's economic rescue package on Wednesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau said the tightening of the border to ban non-essential crossings was carefully considered and negotiated with Washington. That, he said, should give people comfort.

Finance Minister Morneau says he will do 'whatever it takes' to support Canadians and the economy during the COVID-19 crisis.  0:59

"We've been working very hard with the U.S. administration in recent days to make sure we come up with an approach that ensures we can continue to have the goods and the things that we need — the essential medicines, the food — come back and forth across our border, that our broader supply chains can continue," he said.

"What they have come to is a very good conclusion. We're confident that will give Canadians confidence that we'll continue to have what we need."

A lone pedestrian steps off an escalator at a quiet mall in Ottawa, Wednesday March 18, 2020. Stores were mostly closed due to the COVID-19 virus. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

At any rate, opportunities to shop aren't what they were a week ago, and in many instances will be limited now by the patchwork of declared emergencies, public restrictions and curtailed store operating hours — not to mention persistent pleas from public officials for people to stay home.

Typically, retailers worry about supply interruptions because they fear customers will find other sources of goods and never come back. Littler said he doesn't think that will happen this time, because "there isn't any evident cessation of the flow of goods and imports between the two countries."

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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