As pictures of empty shelves dominated our social-media feeds here in Britain, armchair critics denounced their fellow citizens as selfish and greedy. Stop hoarding! End the panic-buying!
Hang on, though. Were hordes of selfish Britons really squirreling away 90 tins of tuna each? As the fog of panic dissipates, the answer is clear: No. Instead, the data show that small changes in the habits of a minority of shoppers prompted lurid headlines about empty shelves—which then made others, quite rationally, change their behavior. That has led to short-term supply issues. (Neither of the two stores closest to me in south London has any eggs in stock, for example.)
Any student of economics will tell you that modern supply chains rely on just-in-time ordering. In the case of British supermarkets, production schedules are tailored precisely to demand, so that unused stock does not sit in warehouses or go to waste. In the current crisis, the country has not run out of essential goods such as toilet paper; the difficulty is getting them onto the shelves quickly enough.
Urban couples and families, unlike their parents and grandparents, have their own version of just-in-time supply chains. They pick up milk on their way home from work. They buy six eggs from a local store, rather than driving to an out-of-town supermarket to load their larder for the week. That approach makes sense: British new-build houses have been getting smaller for decades, so some families simply do not have the space for a full-size freezer. Fewer of us drive now than did in previous decades, and keeping a car in a city can be expensive, particularly when it’s rarely needed. Young Britons also eat out more regularly than previous generations, so like supermarkets themselves, they don’t want to hold on to produce they might never use.