Price gouging concerns persist months into Massachusetts COVID-19 crisis

EASTON, Mass. — If you wanted a small container of Purell hand sanitizer from the E Market Convenience Store in Easton, you had to reach your hand down deep into a plastic bin.

There were almost none left.

The store was selling the one-ounce travel containers for $5.99, a significant mark-up when you consider the cost of hand sanitizer before the pandemic.

Down the street in Easton, the Highland Variety had individual KN95 masks—once available online for around a dollar— listed at $6.99 a piece.

In Boston, the Grove Hall Convenience Store was selling cosmetic masks for $2.50 each.

The clerk said he paid $70 for the box of 50, a mark-up of 78 percent.

"To see such a big jump in some of the prices for these consumer products, and the jump happening so quickly... I would say there’s a lot of blame to go around,” said state Rep. Tami Gouveia, a Democrat who represents the 14th Middlesex District.

Last month Gouveia joined 24 other Massachusetts lawmakers, signing a letter to Amazon, Facebook, Craigslist, eBay, and Walmart demanding the companies crack down on price gouging.

"I do believe that we could probably pass legislation to address this. I know the attorney general has been taking this very, very seriously," Gouveia said.

Most clerks we talk with blame the distributors higher up in the supply chain for jacking up the prices and passing it down to them.

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Enas Nashed, owner of E Market Convenience & Deli, said she paid a vendor in Woburn $4.25 for each 1 oz. bottle of sanitizer, so her mark-up was $1.74, or 41 percent.

“It’s high everywhere,” Nashed said. “You think [$1.74] is a good profit if I spend two hours to pick it up? None of the vendors deliver anymore."

A worker at the Grove Hall Convenience Market even pulled out his receipts to show us he paid $21.95 for a three-pack of Clorox bleach.

But that clerk turned around and sold the bleach individually for $11.68, a 59 percent mark-up.

“When you’re seeing price increases of 20, 30, 40, 50 percent, I have to say there is somebody along the way who is really focused more on capitalizing and benefiting on the pandemic rather than just struggling because of supply chain or other issues related to manufacturing,” Gouveia said.

“If prices skyrocket because of a crisis or in anticipation of a crisis, that’s price gouging,” said Deirdre Cummings, legislative director with the consumer watchdog group, Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group (MASSPIRG).

MASSPIRG recently studied the online sale of masks and hand sanitizer. According to their report, MASSPIRG researches found “more than half... of the products prices spikes by at least 50% compared to the average price."

At times, the cost jumped twice as high as the 90-day average, MASSPIRG said.

Businesses are allowed to raise prices during a critical emergency, but some states set a limit on the amount of a price increase, anywhere from 10 to 25 percent.

Massachusetts law defines price gouging as a "gross disparity" between the cost of an item during normal times compared to an emergency.

The law doesn't spell out any specific percentage to determine exactly when something crosses over to "unfair or deceptive."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently introduced a bill that defines price gouging as any price increase over 10 percent during a national emergency.

"No business should be taking advantage of the situation just to jack up their prices, it's just wrong," Cummings said.

A spokesperson for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said her office has received 476 price gouging complaints since the pandemic began.

Healey filed an emergency regulation in March prohibiting price gouging on essential products and services during the COVID-19 health emergency.

"I do believe that we could probably pass legislation to address this. I know the attorney general has been taking this very, very seriously,” Gouveia said.

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