Mar 302012

Lots of reports talk of the current shift in petrol-purchases in the UK as “panic-buying”.


It is typically calm, rational, sensible, legal, and safe. The people who are panicking are those trying to discourage this behaviour!

However, what was perhaps not so rational was the previous behaviour. Perhaps we should always try to keep our tanks topped up, just in case!

From Wikipedia:
Panic buying is an imprecise common use term to describe the act of people buying unusually large amounts of a product in anticipation of … a large price increase or shortage…. These goods are bought in large amounts to offset a potential shortage or as an act of safety…. Therefore, emergency planners advise that people should maintain a stockpile or pantry list at all times. This advice is intended to avoid excessive or last minute purchases, which can put a strain on supply in times of shortages.

Is it really panic-buying?

Typically no. It isn’t “Of fear, fright etc“, in the normal sense. It is based on plausible evidence-based concerns, and it is precautionary, hence sensible. Calling that “panic” devalues a useful word.

But there are indications of irrational and/or self-centred thinking, for example the mind-set of I am queuing for good reasons but those in front of me are panic-buying idiots”! (Remember that some of the drivers behind you are thinking the same about you!)

“People are definitely panic-buying here. I was almost running on empty and last night I couldn’t get any petrol within a seven-mile radius without joining queues that were causing chaos on the roads”. (And how do you know that those others were not running on empty?)

“I’m really angry. I’ve just been to the petrol station as our tank is almost empty to find queues and messages saying they have run out of petrol and are waiting for fuel supplies. There’s no date for a strike, so why is everyone doing this?” (Why are you doing this?)

“I thankfully managed to fill my car up this morning as it was running on empty, rather than panic-buying as many of the others seemed to be…. I felt I had to queue as I popped out last night to fill my tank, thinking nothing of it, and found every petrol station within about 10 miles dry”. (What is the different between your “I felt I had to queue” and their “panic-buying”? And given that you “found every petrol station within about 10 miles dry”, wasn’t it sensible for everyone else to top-up before that happened?)

Is it selfish and/or anti-social?

Typically no. Some drivers have self-centred thinking, see above, but that really means they often wrongly think of others as selfish.

People who are filling up the fuel tanks in their cars, and not using jerry-cans, are simply bringing forward purchases that they would have made within days (or at most weeks) anyway. And they might have made such purchases at this time had they recently made a long trip. So they are not doing anything that is outside the normal behaviour for people in the UK.

No individual driver’s purchasing pattern can either cause a national or local shortage, or alleviate such a shortage. No individual driver can be blamed for the pumps becoming empty at a particular petrol station. (Don’t ask the stupid question “what if everyone acts like that?” One driver won’t make all the others act like that! All drivers can do is affect their own few litres of petrol, not the community’s).

No one else is looking out for your personal interests. Some people, such as those in government, are engaged in social engineering, trying to change things for society as a whole. If a few thousand drivers run out of petrol because they have been encouraged to buy less, that is acceptable collateral damage if it results in an improvement on average. The media are trying to sell newspapers, etc. For example, the Daily Mail clearly has a (not so secret) policy to keep middle-England angry and frightened as a sales ploy.

So drivers should confidently assume that there will be an extra demand for petrol for a while, (that was always obvious once the possibility arose of a future shortage), and use that as input into their own informed decisions. And they should not worry that they will be forcing significant impacts on others. We are all too insignificant in a population of 10s of millions to be able to do that.

Given that there will be no strike over Easter, does that mean that people should be expected to stop trying to buy petrol? Probably not – people are not buying now to tide them over Easter. They are buying now to tide them over the next few days. The problem is currently being driven by the altered purchasing pattern of  many drivers which is causing shortages, not by the strike!

What are the lessons?

Perhaps the main lesson is taken from the above Wikipedia quote:

Therefore, emergency planners advise that people should maintain a stockpile or pantry list at all times. This advice is intended to avoid excessive or last minute purchases, which can put a strain on supply in times of shortages“.

The current problem is largely caused by the fact that too many complacent people run without enough petrol in their tanks to cater for a shortage, and so when a shortage becomes a possibility they have to  change their behaviour to a more resilient pattern which cannot be rapidly satisfied. A different default purchasing pattern, with people typically running with fuller tanks, could easily have been catered for given enough time and would have avoided the current shortages.

A personal experience

Several years ago I was returning from a business trip, and business activities had caused me to ignore warnings of a petrol crisis. I suddenly realised I didn’t have enough petrol to get home, and I was passing empty petrol stations! Soon I would not even have enough petrol to reach the next station. When I found one by chance that still had petrol, I queued for a long time to get enough to see me home.

Now that was panic buying!

Now it is my policy to try always to have enough petrol to get home, wherever I am in the UK. It can’t always be done, but mostly it can. And it results in peace of mind!

(For decades I have always filled up at petrol stations, rather than taking just a fixed amount such as £20 worth. This reduces the number of times I suffer the inconvenience of the whole activity. I had assumed that most people did the same, but now some people are criticising others for filling up rather than taking a smaller amount. Is this another example of the irrational way that some people view others, stupidly seeing “filling up” as a sign of selfishness? Or is it more common than I thought for people to buy much smaller amounts? And if so, why?)

Further reading

 Leave a Reply

Name required. (Spam NEVER gets published before being trashed)

Email required. (Spam NEVER gets published before being trashed)

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>