We’re All Preppers Now


Prepping – hoarding, or just stocking up for a potential long period of isolation – has suddenly gone from an odd niche enthusiasm to a common behavior. We dug into our consumer insights to find out what that means to people right now, and what it might point to in the future.

By Joe Stubbs and Aidan Borer

Historically, emergency preparation, or “prepping” has been seen as the preserve of eccentrics. Prepping has long been a loaded term, conjuring up images of socially awkward camo-clad zealots living in the woods, slightly unhinged conspiracy theorists posting on YouTube, or doomsday enthusiasts hoarding tinned food and firearms in their backyard bunkers.

But now that’s changed. The coronavirus outbreak has, of course, led to many major changes in behavior – and prepping is among the most obvious. Anybody who has surveyed the empty shelves in major supermarkets or fought for the last roll of toilet paper or bottle of hand sanitizer will know that prepping is now a mainstream consumer habit.

Perhaps strangely, this began before the public had even heard of Covid-19. A 2019 study published by the Journal of Marketing Managementstated that “prepping is not a marginal subculture – but an increasingly mainstream phenomenon, driven not by delusional certainty but a precautionary response to a generalized anxiety people have around permanent crisis…”

But now it’s everywhere. A quick glance on British parenting forum Mumsnet brings up 515 forum discussions on the topic. The moms of Britain are speaking. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, 12,205 comments have been posted across 14 separate “Prepping for Pandemic” threads (14 of 67 new threads, posted around Prepping since the start of February). If your mom and other suburban housewives are talking about a counter-culture, you can pretty safely assume that it’s going mainstream.

Let’s look at some relevant statistics. Demand for hand sanitizer in the United States increased 1,400 per cent from December to January. In the week of February 15, sales increased by 313.4 per cent. In Italy, sales soared 1,807 per cent in the same week vs this time last year. Britons, who are still recovering from a pre-virus, post-Brexit prepping season, drove sanitizer sales up by 225 per cent (YoY) in Feb.

Online D2C providers of toilet paper have seen comparable spikes in demand. Peach Luxury Bath Tissue sales are reported to be up 200 per cent since the start of March – as are Reel Paper sales. No.2 have seen a 1,643 per cent increase in Amazon sales, in the last week. Their 48-roll cartons are out of stock, and Australian brand Who Gives A Crap have sold out of everything, entirely – in Australia, the United States and the UK.

One leading expert on survivalism, in Italy, put the current consumer demand in perspective: “The loss of rationality and reason happened a lot more easily than I expected.”

But maybe it’s not a loss of rationality, but a longing for reliability. One valuable insight comes from work C Space did for a large wholesale retailer last year; they learned that a major part of the value proposition is in purchasing what customers described as “reliable” products. “Reliable Categories” are ones that members worry about running out of and always want to have on hand in bulk:

  • Frozen Foods
  • Household Cleaning Products
  • Household Goods
  • Pet Food
  • Paper and Plastic
  • Child and Baby Care

Being able to purchase these products in bulk connects with members’ core values of convenience, reliability, security, and savings. It enables members to be a reliable part of their household, providing for their families and never running out.

This is a core human drive – to provide for our loved ones. It’s easy to roll your eyes when you see people sweeping the shelves at the grocery store – but that person is scared and just trying to make sure they and their family are going to be OK.

There has also been an opposite reaction against the bulk-buying and hoarding from a sizeable proportion of people, who have generously tried not to be greedy and buy more than their fair share. As one C Space respondent said: “I bought as normal – I didn’t want to overdo it, even with coronavirus. I wanted to buy just the necessary [amount], so that other people can buy…” Even in a situation where many have panicked, some have retained an admirable humanity.

One more point on disaster preparation. If official advice is to “have a couple of weeks of supplies on hand,” what does that actually look like? And is it even possible?

Buying in bulk and “prepping” is not feasible for many Americans, especially younger people, who tend to live in cities and have smaller homes. As one C Space source put it: “I actually have no idea where I would keep a massive bulk order of paper towels if I did have one. This is different than how my parents grew up, with a deep freezer in the garage and a cellar stocked with canned food.”

Another barrier to buying in bulk for a lot of customers, especially those on a low income, is cost. Even if it is a cost saving in the long term, there is a larger up-front investment. And for those living paycheck to paycheck, that’s a huge barrier. 40 per cent of Americans can’t accommodate a $400 unexpected expense in any given month, so trying to buy weeks of supplies all at once would simply be impossible for them. From this angle, we can also see prepping as resource hoarding; something that is only possible for those who can afford it, at the cost of those who can’t.

Of course, there are those for whom money is no object. Enter the luxury lifestyle curators. Judy– a company that sells four different emergency kits, ranging in price from $60 to $250 – received glowing endorsements from Khloé Kardashianon Instagram. These sentiments were echoed by Kim, Kris and Kourtney, through their accounts. And by Olivia Culpo, Haylie Duff, and WhoWoreWhat. And two Real Housewives. We can all agree that Khloé and Kim aren’t your traditional outdoorsy preppers but unsurprisingly, Judy, the month-old start-up, has already sold out of its two most affordable kits.

On a more practical, if expensive, level, Costco, who have seen a stock market increase of 6 per cent in the past week, are selling a $6,000 Doomsday Survival Kit, featuring 36,000 servings of food that can feed a family of four for a year. This kit is just one of a range of emergency kits the retailer has been supplying since 2010, all of which have seen increased demand in recent years.

That’s an extreme example, but we are all outside of our typical purchasing behavior, and it has people reacting in unpredictable ways. As one C Space responder said: “I bought the most random frozen things ever. I even bought a chicken pot pie (WTF?!)”

But here’s an interesting side-effect. Maybe she will end up loving that chicken pot pie and becoming a loyal customer – or someone else will end up switching their toilet paper brand because what they usually buy was out of stock. Perhaps this is an opportunity to disrupt consumers’ routine purchases and get them to try something new. Our customer research (see excerpts below) suggests that many have stepped out of their usual routine. Will they go back?

Like all major changes, this brings opportunities as well as threats. Maybe it’s too early to know in detail what those are (unless you’re a manufacturer of toilet paper or hand sanitizer) but this feels like a major inflection point, as professor Rita Gunther McGrath would put it.

Will consumers get used to bulk-buying? Will delivery services flourish or fade? Will this make the DTC model far more successful? Will we all be buying $250 emergency kits full of color-coded multi-tools and apple-cinnamon bars? All questions we can’t yet answer. But it’s wise to be prepared. If we’re all preppers now, then let’s start stockpiling ideas about what this shift could mean for customers and brands


Life as a Customer: What Buyers Said

From the “Supermarket Sweep” C Space community, March 16 onward

“I have tried to get a few weeks’ worth of food locally. Has been pretty successful so far but definitely a rush on food around here. I did get multiples of items that would not normally get. Milk. Meat. Pasta. Things like this. In these uncertain times I have tried to prepare as best I can without overbuying.” Nathan, Nebraska

“We tried to go to Costco but the parking lot was so crazy and people were circling the parking lot so we didn’t go. We did buy more food after seeing so many empty shelves by us and after the governor decided to close restaurants.”Kate, Indiana

“I bought as normal – I didn’t want to overdo it, even with coronavirus. I wanted to buy just the necessary [amount], so that other people can buy…” Ana, New York

“I have been in Walmart a couple times in the last week. The first trip on Saturday, I got a little depressed watching people buying everything they could find. The empty shelves…” Kim, North Carolina

“There have been many many products with a shortage at the stores I shop at so I am making a grocery list with the items that are usually sold out on each store’s list so I might find some. For instance, I needed white bread Saturday. I put it on the list for Martin’s, Aldi, and Owen’s. I needed only 1 loaf but was afraid I wouldn’t find it where I usually buy it, which is Owen’s, so when I stopped at Martin’s first and they had some, I bought it there. I am getting whatever is on my list wherever I can find it.” Carol, Indiana

“I normally shop at Walmart and Target but lately I’ve been checking out Aldi’s. Aldi’s doesn’t have as big as a crowd as Walmart and Target right now. I have definitely been purchasing more and stocking up.” Shanna, South Carolina

“I have had to change places since my supermarket has some empty, out of stock shelves.

I am buying a little more than what I usually buy since with the coronavirus situation I need to stock up in order to stay home as long as possible. I have also bought items that I generally would not buy, to make a distraction at home like board games, sporting goods, video games.” Jonathan, Tennessee

“Definitely my way of buying has changed, I am buying many more items than I usually do, I have had to go to different places because there are some out of stock, this has been crazy. I have bought more food than I usually do – pasta, rice, grains, canned food, snacks and I have added some items so I can have a little distraction at home.” Madison, North Dakota


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