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Op-Ed: The Psychology Behind Why IKEA Desks, Iphone Chargers, & Chilli Paste Are Flying off the Shelves in the Time of COVID-19

We’ve come a long way since our DORSCON Orange days. We’re a little more rational, more sensible, and a tad bit smarter. We’ve left our panic-buying and hoarding ways long behind us—or have we? While the mad dash for necessities such as rice, toilet paper, and masks have thankfully slowed down, it seems like the introduction of the new Circuit Breakers has shifted urgency to other, more unorthodox items.

You see, the thing with people who are in a stake of panic is that they will not sit still, even though that’s exactly what’s required of them right now. Once a steady supply of necessities has been established, it is natural to look towards the “what’s next”s—anything to improve quality of life even further.

And as it seems, Singaporeans have taken a new-found interest in stocking up on furniture, sports equipment, and entertainment devices to tide them through the next month or longer. I’ve put together what I’d like to call the “1T, 4Fs” framework to better segment the ongoing mystery on why things such as IKEA desks, iPhone Chargers, and other unusual items are flying off the shelves.

The 1T: TECH

Laptops & Monitors

Curious to find out what everyone was in a hurry to buy over the weekend, I set out to run a question poll on my Instagram story. A big bulk of the answers I received were tech-related, with many lamenting about how laptops and monitors were out of stock in various stores, including the COURTS Megastore, and many Best Denki outlets.

The link to this is pretty straightforward. Parents and children alike are going to need their devices for the work from home and home-based learning arrangements—that’s if they don’t already have one. As opposed to the previous common arrangement where everyone shared a desktop at home for communal use, younger children, especially, now require a device of their own for home-based learning purposes.

Families under MOE’s Financial Assistance Scheme, however, have been loaned an iPad for each child, alleviating the financial burden that comes with online learning.

But more than just those who were scrambling to snag personal devices, I highly suspect that a portion of the crowds at electronic stores was also made up of individuals who thought it timely to upgrade their current hardware. Since they would be using it heavily for the next month anyway, many found themselves to be in quite a “there’s no better time to upgrade than now” situation, contributing to the frenzy of shoppers for devices such as laptops.

One friend told me that MacBooks, in particular, were sold out in several Apple stores she’d been to—I guess we know where everyone’s bonuses are going. Webcams were also selling like hot cakes, which is understandable especially since we’re shifting into a era of Zoom meetings and Skype video calls.

Gaming Consoles

Looking back at the idyllic, pre-COVID days, a typical day in a Singaporean household consisted of everyone going about their days separately, having dinner together as a family, and then spending weekends at the mall or beach. Then, everything changed when the fire nation attacked. I mean, when COVID-19 befell us.

So, parents are coming to the realisation that they’re going to have to spend twenty-four hours a day under the same roof with their children, with no childcare centre to banish them to, and they are panicking.

In an attempt to keep their children occupied after school hours, parents have been swiping gaming consoles such as Nintendo Switches and Wiis off the shelves, desperate to keep the screaming child at bay as they fight to stay focussed while working from home.

Credit – SGEEK

Or, I could be entirely wrong, and that everyone’s just treating themselves to entertainment to stay sane during this period. Either way, it is quite apparent and even expected, why in-house amusement devices are getting snapped up. Besides, what else is there to subject yourself to apart from Netflix and games?

iPhone Chargers

A friend of mine found herself in a frustrating situation over the weekend when all she wanted to do was one simple thing—get her iPhone cable changed, but getting her cable changed she could not. The reason for this being, iPhone cables were simply sold out across multiple Apple stores in Singapore.

This seemed so bizarre to me because a phone charger would not be the first thing to cross my mind on the occasion of a stay home situation. I guess the kiasuism of Singaporeans reigns once again, buying out of fear that their charger might go bust, and that they’d have to live with a juiceless phone for the next month. While there is some justification in that, it only makes sense if you’re the only Apple user in your family.

The 4Fs:


Desks & Chairs

The mad queues at IKEA over the weekend have been the talk of the town as of late, and it’s not hard to see why. There is nothing more that embodies the epitome of a first-world problem than a Singaporean who is given a couple of days to sort out their necessities but spends it queueing for hours just to get into IKEA.

Credit – Shin Min Daily News

As many have enlightened me, Singaporean parents and children alike are not equipped for the working and learning from home arrangement that awaits them. Unlike other cultures, a designated study space might not exist in everyone’s homes here in Singapore, and people just usually resort to having their dining tables double up as their workspace when needed.

After speaking to a couple of friends, I also concluded that Singaporeans weren’t equipped to work from home most probably due to two reasons. One, they work strictly in the office due to the confidential nature of the information they handle, and two, that the culture of working at cafes is highly prevalent in Singapore. This would explain the lack of study spaces at home on a usual basis.

And then we have the running joke that the only IKEA furniture that people in the queue would need is a self-assembled coffin—cheekily named Kovidiot. I’m just going to leave this meme here.

Credit – @Singaplex


Kettlebells & Weights

Friends informed me that Decathlon has since been swiped clean of kettlebells, weights, and anything else that might act as a close substitute. It’s understandable—gyms everywhere are now closed, and one month (perhaps even longer) is not a short period. As much as staying at home is everyone’s top priority now, fitness shouldn’t take a backseat either.

People have been clamouring to create their mini indoor gymnasium, putting together whatever they can find to ensure that their exercise regimen can carry on as status quo. After all, the show must go on! Although I do applaud them for treating fitness seriously, I’m at the same time highly sceptical of their newly acquired equipment’s utilisation rate.

If Benny from HR can pay $200 a month for his gym membership only to let his New Year’s resolution go to s**t, what’s stopping him from leaving his 20kg dumbbells to turn to white elephants?


An interesting perspective from a friend was a rumour that some who got laid off were rushing to purchase bicycles so that they could earn some pocket money as food delivery riders. Be it true or not, it is interesting to see the structure of our economy mould and shift to suit its demands, with Singapore Airlines staff being seconded to work in hospitality alongside medical professionals, caring for the sick while lightening the load of doctors and nurses.

I thought that it was a clever and resourceful move, especially in a time where a strategic reallocation of the workforce is needed more than ever.


老干妈 Lao Gan Ma Chilli

Many Singaporeans will instantly salivate at the sound of Lao Gan Ma Chilli, worshipping the chilli paste in all its spicy, rich, and umami splendour. I guess they love it so much, they saw it as a non-negotiable must-have in their pantries.

A friend of mine was appalled, disappointed, and downright upset that he couldn’t get his favourite chilli paste over the weekend. Now, he will have to settle for subpar chilli sauces to tide him through this circuit breaker period, and my heart goes out to him. I mean, who can deny it? Lao Gan Ma isn’t just a sauce, Lao Gan Ma is a way of life.

FOUR (4) D

The last ‘F’ in my framework stands for none other than Four (4) D. In case you’ve been living under a rock, 4D—short for ‘four digits’—is a betting system that has boggled the minds of Singaporeans for as long as one can remember, launching everyone on the quest for the perfect sequence of four digits to win this game of luck. And while I was busy doing grocery runs over the weekend, I couldn’t help but notice a long line at the Singapore Pools counter, where 4D tickets are typically purchased.

Credit – Toast Comics

Perhaps this is not out of the norm, but I chuckled at the thought of everyone trying their hand at a final stroke of luck before the partial lockdown measures, bargaining with Lady Luck just one last time. Perhaps to those who got laid off, they seek blessings from the universe for a monetary gift to tide them through, and for the more superstitious, maybe a global pandemic is supposed to signal good luck in the fortune department. Your guess is as good as mine.

So, why can’t they just shop online?

I know the question that many of you may have is, “why can’t they just shop online for all these things?”—and I shared the same sentiments until I gave it more in-depth thought.

1. Lag Time

Most logically speaking, purchasing items online has a considerable lag time, especially now when the delivery volume is high. And I get it, if we’re talking about things such as laptops and tablets that cannot wait because they have to be prepared, come Wednesday when Home-Based Learning kicks in.

However, waiting an extra week for that tenth bottle of chilli sauce never hurt anybody. Furthermore, it seems unwise to risk one’s health battling crowds for the immediacy of an item. As former nominated MP Calvin Cheng put it, “If you see a crowd, turn back. Nothing is more essential than your life.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

2. Psychology of Physical Obtainment

As a psychology major, I’ve considered the psychological aspect of such buying behaviours as well. In a time of panic and fear, it is natural for individuals to seek tangible lifebuoys that they can hang onto. Unlike purchasing what they need online, the act of heading out, physically and literally getting their hands on an item, and bringing it back home with them is a process that gives them safety, and one that also makes them feel like they are actively doing something about the situation.

This is as opposed to clicking buttons and passively awaiting the deliveries of their goods, wondering if they will arrive at all. Fear has a funny way of herding us humans into making sometimes questionable choices—another big reason why we should not be fear mongers.

3. Longevity of Products

Ultimately, this pandemic will end, and life will resume to the way it once was. What now? Many will return to their paid gyms, and their equipment will be left to collect dust. Or perhaps the household now has one too many tables, and it’s becoming quite a nuisance to an already cluttered house.

When I heard that people were buying ‘big ticket’ items like those mentioned above, the first thing I questioned was their longevity. Just how long will they be used before they get chucked aside, deep into the abyss of the storage room? Instead of giving in to the all-too-familiar capitalistic ways, what I reckon everyone should have done was to borrow or make do.

Loaning that spare laptop from their neighbour or using filled water bottles as weights would have done leaps and bounds for both their wallets and the environment.

A look at our rapidly changing way of life

Lastly, this fiasco has made me reflect on how life, as we know it in Singapore, is changing so rapidly, and that COVID-19 has forced us way out of our comfort zones. Cooped up in our privilege, we’re not equipped to humble ourselves into the constraints of our homes because God forbid we have to do the dishes after cooking.

Through this, I’ve learnt that we should always be quick on our feet, ready to adapt whenever possible. This was not our first national emergency and will not be our last. Most of all, it makes you wonder—what was life before COVID-19? And what will life be like post COVID-19?

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