A Which? investigation has uncovered hundreds of listings for essential products at inflated prices sold via online marketplaces, and has found evidence that thousands of items have been sold at these rip-off rates.
The first page of search results for some popular brands on online marketplaces such as Amazon Marketplace and eBay were rife with household essentials being sold for at least double the typical supermarket price, as some third-party sellers seek to profiteer amid the coronavirus crisis – and Which? has heard similar reports from consumers who are vulnerable or in desperate need of these in-demand items.
The consumer champion has also uncovered evidence on eBay that thousands of these essential products such as hand sanitiser, cleaning products, toilet roll and tissues are being purchased at these high prices by consumers. Unknown to the brands, the unscrupulous traders often exploit popular household names such as Andrex, Carex, Dettol and Kleenex in order to profit.
Which? recognises that action is being taken against price-gouging by both Amazon and eBay through blocking and removing large quantities of listings or offers and suspending accounts, but its investigations continue to find large numbers of essential products being listed for sale at inflated prices, suggesting measures from marketplaces alone are not enough and government intervention is needed.
Based on the first page of search results for Carex on Amazon Marketplace, more than half (56%) of Carex products, including hand wash and hand sanitiser, were being sold for five times the typical supermarket price or more and one in 10 (9%) were on sale for 10 times the price. In fact, 98 per cent of those items on the first page of search results were on offer for double the typical price or more.
For Dettol products listed by Amazon sellers on the first page of search results, which included antibacterial soap, wipes and spray, around six in 10 (63%) of listings were double the price or more.
On the first page of listings for Dettol on eBay, Which? researchers found that not only were nearly nine in 10 (85%) of Dettol items being sold for double the typical supermarket cost, but two in 10 (22%) were five times the typical price, and 8 per cent were 10 times the price.
Eight in 10 (81%) Carex products on the first page of search results – including hand wash and antibacterial gels – were being sold on eBay for double the typical supermarket cost, while 60 per cent of Andrex and 50 per cent of Kleenex first page listings were double the typical price.
Which?’s new price-gouging reporting tool has also received hundreds of reports of inflated prices so far, six in 10 (58%) of which were about products sold on online marketplaces. Given that Amazon and eBay are by far the most popular online marketplaces in the UK, it’s no surprise that a large proportion of reports are about them.
Consumers are also encouraged to report any issues they see to Amazon and eBay directly.
Of the other 42 per cent, the majority were about supermarkets or large chain stores. One reason Which? set up the tool was due to the difficulty in investigating bricks and mortar cases during lockdown. A third of tool users also reported they are buying products even when they believe them to be at unfair prices.
Which? has heard from housebound vulnerable people who rely on essential items such as cleaning products to protect themselves from Covid-19 – and have reported the sky-high prices they have seen on online marketplaces.
Kathryn Taylor, 59, has a chronic lung condition and has to stay at home due to serious issues with her immune system. She saw a seller on Amazon Marketplace selling 1 litre of Dettol spray for £29.99. She said: “It’s disgusting. I have had to use these products for years now for hygiene reasons for managing serious health conditions and the current shortages mean I have to try to look elsewhere if not available for my Tesco delivery, but I cannot afford to pay the prices.”
On eBay, a 500ml bottle of Dettol surface cleanser, usually sold for £1.75 or less, was listed for more than £9 by one seller. In the reviews, a buyer said that they had been forced to buy it at an ‘exorbitant price’ for their elderly mother who suffers from Parkinson’s disease.
Which? also saw issues on OnBuy, which claims to be one of the world’s fastest growing online marketplaces and was reported to Which? by people trying to find Dettol products.
One person who used Which?’s price gouging reporting tool said that they had found Dettol antibacterial washing machine cleaner on sale for £19.59 via OnBuy, instead of the typical £3.50. Another told Which? that they had been trying to buy Dettol anti-bacterial spray, and had found a bundle of three 750ml bottles on OnBuy for £45.94, rather than the usual £2.50 a bottle.
Which? found multiple examples of products listed by sellers for inflated prices via OnBuy. A bundle of six 750ml Dettol Power and Pure kitchen sprays, usually £3 each, was being sold for more than £40 including postage. A pack of Dettol wipes was for sale for £15.81, more than three times the usual £5.
Which? will be sharing its price-gouging tool data with the CMA, which has set up a special Covid-19 task force to look at issues faced by consumers.
Which? is calling for emergency legislation to give regulators the tools to swiftly crack down on price-gouging on certain essential products during this crisis, and any future ones.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said:
“It cannot be right that potentially thousands of people have paid unjustifiably high prices to buy essential items during this Covid-19 crisis. While welcome, it’s clear that measures being put in place by online marketplaces are not enough to stop coronavirus profiteering by those seeking to exploit the current situation.
“The government, working with the CMA, needs to step in with emergency legislation to enable swift action to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of essential items reasonable during crises both now and in the future.”
On Thursday 14 May at 9.30am, Which?’s Sue Davies will be giving evidence to the BEIS Select Committee about the impact of coronavirus on consumers: https://committees.parliament.
Link for consumers to submit reports to Which?’s price-gouging tool: https://www.which.co.uk/
Notes to editors
Amazon and eBay are by far the most popular online marketplaces with UK consumers, according to data analytics company GlobalData. Over 60% of online shoppers had purchased from Amazon and 40% from eBay in the twelve months to September 2019. This figure is likely to be even higher in 2020, as consumers turn to well-known online marketplaces for everyday purchases during lockdown and beyond.
Which? searched for brand names, including Andrex, Carex, Dettol and Kleenex, on Amazon Marketplace and eBay between 23 and 29 April 2020 and analysed the ‘buy it now’ results. Prices of household essentials were compared against those listed by supermarkets and pharmacies during the same period.
Which?’s campaign to end price-gouging: https://campaigns.which.co.uk/
Which? is a non-profit organisation working to make life simpler, fairer and safer for consumers. During the coronavirus crisis, Which? is making a range of news, advice and guides available for free for anyone who needs it at: https://www.which.co.uk/news/
Which?’s price gouging tool lets consumers report their experiences of inflated prices. The statistics in this article relate to 819 reports made between 29 April and 2 May.
Reporting price-gouging to online marketplaces
Amazon If you spot something suspicious on Amazon, you’ll need to go through their contact us/help pages to flag the seller and the listing.
eBay eBay has a ‘report this listing’ option for every product.
Additional details on the findings
Which? searched for Carex and Dettol on Amazon, and analysed the prices for the products on the first page by the default sorting.
Examples Which? found on Amazon Marketplace:
A pack of two 50ml bottles of Carex antibacterial hand gel that was £24.99 on Amazon instead of the usual £2 – around twelve times the price.
A pack of 10 Dettol lemon and lime floor wipes were priced at £18.99, more than nine times the usual £2 price.
One seller listed a litre bottle of Dettol Power & Fresh Advance Antibacterial Spray Pomegranate, which can be bought for £2 in supermarkets, for £14.70.
Based on the visible eBay sales history for items, Which? found that thousands had been sold for at least double the price you would find them in the supermarket, including:
Over 1,900 Dettol products, including household sprays
Over 200 Carex branded items, such as handwash and antibacterial gel
175 Andrex products including toilet roll and moist washlets
94 packs of Kleenex tissues
While Which? found some listings that showed hundreds of sales, only the last 100 transactions are displayed. This analysis only includes the number of items researchers know were sold at the listed price. And Which? only analysed the first page of search results (around 50 listings per search). With Dettol, for example, there are more than 1,600 listings. The number sold is likely to be far higher.
Examples Which? found on eBay:
One eBay seller was charging £12.99 for a 400ml bottle of Dettol Anti-Bacterial Disinfectant Spray, despite the usual price of £1 in shops.
Two 250ml bottles of ‘fun edition’ Carex hand wash were on sale for £15.94 – seven times the price you could buy them for in supermarkets. A bundle of two 50ml Carex hand gels were £16, when these would normally cost around £3 for both.
An individual bar of Dettol soap, usually available in packs of four for around 30p per soap, was listed for £3.50 – more than ten times the price.
One seller, who is based in the UK, was using the postage price to hide the markup on both Andrex and Kleenex products. They were charging £9.70 to ship three packs of Andrex washlets from Welwyn Garden City. Including postage and packaging, buyers would pay £14.69 buying through eBay, instead of the typical supermarket price of £4.50. Another listing from the same seller – a two pack of Kleenex tissues – had an item price of £3.99, but a postage cost of £8.50.
Other consumers reported seeing sellers on OnBuy listing one 400ml Dettol spray for £18.99, and another listing of three sprays for £34.83.
Rights of reply
An Amazon spokesperson said:
“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon. When a bad actor attempts to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis, it’s bad for customers and the hundreds of thousands of honest businesses selling in our store.”
“In line with our long-standing policy, we have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers and pursued legal action against bad actors.”
An eBay spokesperson said:
“It is highly irresponsible of Which? to repeatedly mis-represent the reality of price gouging as part of its ongoing campaign against online marketplaces. eBay gives people a great way to access the items they need – especially during lockdown – and we invest heavily in measures to ensure they can do so safely.
“While a small minority of unscrupulous sellers do attempt to take advantage of other users, effective safeguards have been in place for weeks to prevent this.”
Despite having effective safeguards in place for weeks, eBay went on to remove all of the hundreds of listings of essential items being sold at inflated prices that Which? shared.
Cas Paton, CEO of OnBuy.com said:
“Price inflation is an issue we take very seriously, and we thank you for bringing these cases to our attention.
“Our automated measures to flag sellers we suspect of price inflation are based on market-adjusted data sets and customer reports. We manually investigate each incident. We are constantly investing in data and applying it to tens of millions products across more than 6,000 product categories.
“Our recent rapid growth in terms of the number of both sellers and customers using OnBuy.com, combined with the impact of Covid-19 on our processes, has made that task more difficult for our employees.
“Covid-19 has had an impact on the entire national workforce, as we’ve adapted to working at home and among our families, but also, market price distortions have occurred that have affected detection relative to a normal pricing scenario, and that’s harder to plan for. It’s unprecedented, and we’re learning.
“We’re committed to addressing price inflation by continuing to invest hugely in data and employing in this vital area for our business, as we grow exponentially. To combat this, we’ve recruited twenty additional members of staff (all working from home) to help us keep pricing fair and competitive to normal market prices.
“We believe that online marketplaces should be able to accept criticism and learn from it. Our company commitment is to our customers, to our sellers and, as the leading online marketplace based in the UK but operating globally, the economy we contribute to and benefit from.”