The sun rose again this morning, so I'm sure there's some panic-buying regret spreading across the globe today. Yesterday, after all, the Mayan apocalypse was supposed to happen, marking the end of the 5,125-year Mayan calendar.
Not that I'm feeling smug or anything. I have been known to panic-buy acorn squash when a bad winter storm is forecast to hit. They last for weeks in a cool, dry basement, the only trick being you have to remember you bought them after the megastorm of the century turns out to be a piddly two-hour gust. (To make myself feel better, I prefer to think of the instinct as a form of extreme nesting.)
I figure that all the people who were reportedly stocking up on survival shelters are now busily thinking about how to repurpose them as dog houses for their spoiled pets. And all those candles people panic-bought? Hey, it's Christmas. You can never have enough candles when you want to keep the lights low so guests don't see the cracks in the ceiling or the zit on your forehead from too much Toblerone. That's the thing about doomsday shoppers. They have to be resourceful. They have to think ahead even if they think the world is about to end. They know from experience. Those darn predictions have a way of being false.
But I wasn't so worried about the Mayan apocalypse. I was busy anticipating the panic-buying that I knew would be necessary: the kind that really ramps up this weekend with only a few days left before Christmas. It involves more than just frenzied shopping for presents. You can panic-buy candy canes, sure that there won't be enough for all the children. You can panic-buy cheese. You can panic-buy pretzels.
"Do you think we'll have enough?" your spouse might ask. "Remember: 30 people are dropping in for drinks. They'll be hungry."
And that's all you need – the hint of a possible entertaining apocalypse involving famished, unimpressed guests. Before you know it, you'll be in the grip of the tyranny of the urgent, headed back to the grocery store to buy more packages of chips or whatever else you deem reputation-saving. It all makes perfect sense until the guests leave and you're facing weeks of eating up all the stuffed olives.
Panic-buying of all kinds is really quite rational, at least at the time you're doing it. "You tell yourself a story about why you need something," explains Ryan Howell, assistant professor of consumer psychology at San Francisco State University and cofounder of http://www.beyondthepurchase.org/. "It's the same sort of thing that that goes through someone's brain when buying a lottery ticket. It's something you don't really think you're going to win but you'd seem really stupid if you didn't buy a ticket to give yourself a chance. In a technical sense, it's extreme risk aversion. You want to prepare, just in case."
The worst holiday doom scenario is the possibility of disappointed loved ones, which fuels its own kind of desperate purchasing. As of mid-December, 41 per cent of consumers hadn't started shopping for the holidays, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst with the NPD Group, a market research company in the United States; he says the statistics on holiday-shopping behaviour are similar through much of the world. In this, the final week, 18 per cent of people have still not done their holiday gift shopping. "When you think that 18 per cent of the gifts that are being given are what I call remnants – whatever is left over at the stores – it's no wonder you get the sweater that doesn't fit. No wonder you get the ugliest socks. No wonder you get so many gifts you want to return or regift."
And the excuse can't always be a stressful job or extenuating circumstances. Much of holiday-shopping behaviour comes down to a personality trait: You're either a gift-thinker or a gift-grabber, Cohen explains. "A giftthinker is thoughtful about what he selects. A gift-grabber is someone who just runs in and grabs whatever is on the table in the store and doesn't care what colour it is or what size because he just wants to get you something." And, yes, Cohen admits, "the vast majority of last-minute panic-buyers are men." Still, male panic-buying can have its upside for female partners as "the most panic-bought item [among adult males] is jewellery. The industry has done a great job of convincing us that, if we give them jewellery, all the sins about how little thought went into it go away." For the younger generation, the popular gift-grab is movies; for children, the go-to panic present is a toy, any toy.
Cohen thinks people should forgive the gift-grabbers of the world. It's like being short or something. Not their fault. Part of their genetic makeup. But I think that's a bit permissive. It's like letting your teenagers get away with staying out all hours, just because it's in their developmental stage to want to defy you. You have to set boundaries – make clear what's acceptable and not. Ditto for presents, I have come to understand.
That's because, as someone who gives and gets presents, I know how upsetting a bad panic-purchase can be. I have seen the small, tight smile of the person who gets a useless present grabbed off the shelf at the last moment. No excuse works. Even if you're on your last legs, you must put some thought into a present bought for a loved one – even if that means that, in the end, you have to send someone else out to buy it or order it online. And pity the poor man who grabs his partner a poor choice of clothing. Remember how she always asks if she looks fat in something? Well, if in doubt about her size, go smaller. Otherwise, you could be saying she does look fat.
And that, my friend, will trigger an apocalypse you may not survive.