More than a third (36%) of people, who reported price hikes, say that they have been forced to pay sky-high prices to get hold of essential hygiene and medical products during the coronavirus pandemic as opportunistic sellers have sought to exploit the crisis by price gouging, new Which? research reveals.
Analysis of almost 1,500 reports sent to the consumer champion’s price-gouging reporting tool over the last two months shows that 696 (47%) of the overall tool reports were for essential hygiene or medical products that people vitally need during this pandemic.
There have been price gouging issues both online and in-store, according to the consumers that reported to the tool. Most reports related to alleged profiteering by sellers online, with tech giants Amazon and eBay accounting for the majority of listings. Three-quarters (75%) of items with inflated prices reported to Which? were seen online, either on marketplaces or through online shops, while 25 per cent were spotted in-store.
Among the cases logged by the tool – shared by Which? with the CMA’s Covid-19 taskforce – are Dettol handwash being sold via Amazon, unknown to the brand, for £14.99 rather than £1.49 and a packet of paracetamol on sale in a local store for more than seven times the usual price.
These significant price hikes on items have affected vulnerable people with underlying health conditions as well as key workers who had no choice but to go out and work. One person who bought a case of hand sanitiser off Chemist-4-u.com told Which?: “I am furious that after buying hand sanitiser for £64.99 in late March, more recently the price has magically fallen by £40. I am a non-medical frontline worker and as a self-employed lawyer I am reliant on hand sanitiser to keep myself and others safe.”
Among the examples reported to Which? by consumers were medical-grade face masks that might be required by key workers, including an N95 face mask for £28.99 – nearly 20 times the usual price according to the tool user – via medical supply website UK Meds. Another person reported seeing the same mask on sale on the website for £14.99 – 10 times the usual price, they reported.
An FFP3 mask from eBay in May was on sale for £19.99 instead of £4 – five times the price. While a silverline branded moulded face mask, which usually costs around 80p, was being sold for £6.99 in a pharmacy before lockdown began – more than eight times the price. The person that saw the latter example told Which? that they felt that the price was exploitative.*
Which? found that the average percentage price difference for hygiene products such as hand sanitiser and disinfectant was 414 per cent – five times the price on average.
Four in 10 (40%) of the essential hygiene products which were reported as having inflated prices were hand sanitiser and soap. Recently the competition regulator (CMA) announced it is investigating four pharmacies and convenience stores for the suspected charging of excessive and unfair prices for hand sanitiser.
Across all product categories, 30 per cent of people had bought an item at an inflated price while four in 10 (40%) reported that they simply had to go without because of the excessive price of the product.
Hundreds of people, both those that had bought an item at the inflated price and those that had gone without, told Which? that they felt the price was unfair and exploitative.
For the 133 reports of price gouging on PPE, such as face masks and gloves, the average markup was 478 per cent.
Forty one per cent of the inflated prices reported were seen in the several weeks prior to the reporting tool launching, 11-30 April.
While the number of reports has decreased in recent weeks, people continued to report items at extortionate costs throughout May and June suggesting that there are outstanding problems with suspected price gouging due to seemingly unjustifiable price hikes. These prices could be high because of increased costs of materials or supply chain issues. However Which? is calling for the regulator to have more effective powers to investigate and ensure that prices are not due to businesses exploiting the crisis.
Consumers are encouraged to report any examples of price gouging with the CMA’s Covid-19 taskforce complaints service, and some online marketplaces also enable people to report listings directly to them.
Which? believes that no-one should be able to exploit a national emergency and leave people with little choice but to buy essential items at unfair prices in order to stay safe and survive in a crisis. There is a risk that problems could flare up again with lockdown easing and an increase in demand for products such as hand sanitiser from consumers, as well as from businesses that are reopening.
Which? is calling for emergency legislation to give regulators the tools to swiftly crack down on price gouging of essential products such as hand sanitiser and cleaning products, during this crisis and any future ones. This would assist the CMA in its current investigation to tackle suspected price gouging on hand sanitiser products by certain businesses.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said:
“Our tool reports show that price hikes on essential items have too often been excessive and people consider them to be unfair and exploitative. International experience shows that price gouging is frequently a problem during national emergencies and the UK should ensure it is better able to crack down on profiteering.
“It’s good the CMA is now attempting to take action to investigate some instances of price gouging using competition law. However, the government should be helping the regulator by giving it more targeted powers to take swifter action to stamp out price gouging, and ensure the price of essential items stays at reasonable levels during a crisis when people need them most.”
One person who bought a case of hand sanitiser off Chemist-4-u.com told Which?:
“I am furious that after buying hand sanitiser for £64.99 in late March, more recently the price has magically fallen by £40. I am a non-medical frontline worker and as a self-employed lawyer I am reliant on hand sanitiser to keep myself and others safe on public transport travelling to and from court, in the courts themselves and for interactions with prisoners and the police.”
Another person, a mutual aid volunteer in London, raised concerns about a local pharmacy:
“We have a local pharmacy that seems to be gouging to an extent far worse than other pharmacies and is causing lots of stress amongst the people we support. To the extent it is making those who are already anxious even more so as they can’t afford the uplift of 100 per cent plus on their pain relief and they are considering going without. We are covering the increase in cost to ensure they don’t continue in pain, but having mentioned my concern to the pharmacy in person they laughed, so I wanted to formally report their behaviour. They are charging double what other local pharmacies in the area even during these times, so it’s clearly not simply the cost of supply has gone up.”
Stuart Randall, 57, told Which?:
“I was born with immune system problems which mean I am reliant on disposable gloves for lots of everyday tasks. However, as soon as the pandemic started, prices for this product started to rocket. The free delivery and bulk offers on online marketplaces, such as Amazon Marketplace, have disappeared and the cheapest are over 50 per cent more expensive. It seems unfair that chancers are slapping silly prices on goods to fleece the unwary.”**
*The UK government and medical experts agree that medical-grade respirator masks of these types aren’t appropriate for everyday use by the general public and should be reserved for frontline health workers. The WHO advises that those over 60 consider wearing basic surgical-style medical masks, not respirator style masks, in areas where social distancing isn’t possible.
**To note, while some extremely vulnerable people may need disposable gloves for particular health reasons, they are not recommended by experts for the general public for activities like shopping.
Notes to editor
- The CMA’s COVID-19 Taskforce continues to ask consumers and businesses to report any businesses that behave unfairly by, for example, unjustly raising prices, via its online form: https://www.coronavirus-business-complaint.service.gov.uk.
- Since Which? began reporting on price gouging in March, it has received thousands of reports of inflated prices across its channels including social and Which? conversation. The majority of these have come through Which?’s price gouging reporting tool. From its launch on 29 April until 14 June, it received 1,468 reports of inflated prices from shoppers.
- CMA investigation: Hand sanitiser products: suspected excessive and unfair pricing
Which? price gouging advice and tool link: which.co.uk/pricegouging
Rights of reply
“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 hundreds of bad actors across a number of countries.”
“At the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic, the availability of hand gel was in short supply with UK manufacturing output insufficient to meet consumer demand and as a result our cost price from our supplier Brodie & Stone increased circa 4 fold.
“Our pricing has been queried by the Competition and Markets Authority who instructed an audit on our pricing strategy during this period. We have fully co-operated with this enquiry and supplied all cost of goods information.
“As manufacturing output has increased over the period of the pandemic we have seen significant cost reductions in the price we are being charged by our suppliers. This reduction has been passed on to our customers as evidenced by the reduced pricing on our website.”
“The single listing that Which? was able to share with us was reviewed and removed for reasons unrelated to price gouging.”
Which? sent details of the face mask reports it had received from consumers to UK Meds, but at the time of writing the company has not responded.