The shortage of sunflower oil, caused by the war in Ukraine, has caused panic in some French supermarkets. Restrictions placed on the doors of facilities, limiting the supply of oil to three or four bottles per person, have caused a large movement of mandatory purchases. But what is called “panic buying” (“panic buying”) does not translate the same fears according to one’s social class. Two specialists compare their views on the subject: Fanny Parise, anthropologist of consumption and lifestyle evolution, associate researcher at the University of Lausanne, and Séverine Enjolras, anthropologist and documentary filmmaker, teacher at Master 2 in Paris-Sorbonne.
How do you perceive these compulsive buying behaviors in times of crisis?
Fanny Paris: Fear will lead to differentiated buying practices. Some food products will be perceived as safe havens, as if, by sticking to a logic of hyperconsumption, we could mobilize the imagination of the abundance of the last century, that of our modern and western societies. Totem products will not be the same depending on the country. In Switzerland, during the pandemic, we saw an increase in sales of canned ravioli, accompanied by advertising images, with pet foods. In France it was toilet paper, a symbol of modernity and our western life, while half of humanity does not use it.
What comfort do these “totem” products bring?
PF: When we are going through a period that causes anxiety, consumption becomes particularly soothing. In Europe, all products packaged and overpacked by leading brands in the food industry are popular during times of crisis. They are interesting for several reasons: they stay reasonably priced, are well preserved, easily stored and moreover avoid contamination because this food does not come into contact with air. But many other products are returning to the shelter: frozen foods, industrial cakes, tins, canned tuna … Everything that is usually criticized by nutritionists or ecologists, suddenly becomes very desirable. During crises, we try to control what we can, what is achievable: ourselves, family, home … and food is part of it. This is even more surprising as this food crisis comes at a time when we thought our society was spared from shortages. The health crisis and now the war have made the threat more concrete.
Severine Enjolras: This logistical crisis reveals our fear of losing comfort, but we are far from hungry. I have just returned from Moldova where I distributed the necessary things for refugee mothers and babies, not in camps because there are no such structures in this country, but in municipalities, with local associations. Going to the capital market, Chisinau, we see that there is currently a serious shortage of salt, a common commodity we should now get on the black market. Salt is an essential spice, which has a great symbolic value. Fear of hunger is real in Moldova, and as you approach the border, you can hear Ukrainian sirens. Fear of hunger, in this country much poorer than ours, brings back episodes like the ghost of the great famine of 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, under Stalin, which had led to five million deaths. In France, when people rush for oil or products that remain in fact comforting and safe havens, it is initially the imagination of the shortage that is called, not that of hunger. This imaginary crisis and war varies according to geographical position.
But one can think of the deprivations of World War II, the memory of which can be reborn in a moment like this.
SE: For me, World War II is far away. Fear of expropriation is mainly consumer. The rush for pet products responds to the logic of comfort. Nutella is the totem, and toilet paper is comfort. The fear of losing is very capitalist.
PF: Buying panic is experienced differently depending on your social class. The working class will think of a budget logic: buy now to predict a price increase later.
Yes, all the more so as the price of sunflower oil is rising, this cheap product is turning into a luxury product that now needs to be replaced.
PF: The middle class rushes to see the shelves less filled with a consumer entertainment reflex: everyone does it, so do I. The upper classes will look for alternatives, healthier oils, different, local, in a distinct, practice of lecturing, showing that they have a choice. How do we secure ourselves with products that have populated our imagination? There are different social logics that collide.
Some, like restaurants, have no choice but to buy plenty of oil on a daily basis. In this case, the product is not a “safe haven”.
SE: The expression “panic buying” refers visually to dilapidated supermarkets, images of shortages and anarchy. In wholesalers, there is a real staging of shortage: oil shelves are now doomed with ribbons marking places, with the ban on serving themselves. That’s when the strategies start: who knows the manager or the cashier to get a little more, even, which obviously creates inflation, even if the supply problem. Moreover, preventive messages create the opposite effect. When a brand asks its customers to ration purchases in four or five bottles per person, people say to themselves: if we have to ration, it means there is a real risk of shortage, so I will make reservations. We are told there is a problem, so we respond in a hurry.
Would this fear of the marker loss of a society ruled by an imaginary accumulation?
PF: Yes, and this fear is very western and recent! In Latin America, among the nomadic hunters of the Amazon [«comme les Awa», ajoute Séverine Enjolras, ndlr], abundance is not well perceived: the more it accumulates, the less it is mobile, the more it burdens itself. Accumulation is not a model of appreciation shared by all of humanity and, let us remember, our northwestern lifestyles are not very much on the scale of humanity.
Do these moments of deprivation change consumer behavior? We could fantasize, after closing, a return to “local” or more virtuous consumption practices.
SE: I will give a wonderful example. There is currently a shortage of wood which poses major problems, especially for publishing, printing, newspapers and books. Many French oaks are exported to China, which puts some sectors in difficulty.
Yes, especially in cooperatives.
SE: This is true for the wine sector, but also for other sectors. It is interesting that the writing wood used to make toilet paper is classified as an “essential commodity”, but not the wood used to make coffins, for example! Toilet paper is the object of modern comfort certified by society and laws. This detail says a lot about the fact that the state gives another value to goods, both as objects and as symbols.
Let me insist on the funeral rites sector. You need a certain stock of coffins and there is a battle between different gravediggers, who are very capitalist actors, to catch this tree. The PFG group has every interest in selling wooden coffins because they make more money there. Except that the increase in deaths during the pandemic forced many coffins to be produced in a short time. And here consumer behavior is changing. The shortage of wood has had a virtuous effect that deserves to be reckoned with: after this crisis, the market for cardboard coffins, which is more environmentally friendly, cheaper, consumes faster in combustion and pollutes less, begins to penetrate France. . It is rather a virtuous effect of absence and that influences purchasing behavior.
Do you have examples where crises have created negative effects?
PF: During isolation, temporary routines have taken place. Small producers have become known on social networks, local professionals have gained a new clientele. We proved to ourselves that we could do things differently and that it did not cost more. But we also noticed that, as soon as the sanitary measures were lifted, individuals started consuming products as before, less organic, less local, etc. Only a small minority continued to consume less or consume differently, especially if they were in an ethical approach before closing. But for most individuals, there has been no change. The issue of deconsumption varies according to its position in the social body. It is a simple observation, because here we do not judge what is good or bad: from an anthropological point of view, there is no morality in human behavior.