Which? is calling for urgent government action that would limit the prices of essential products during the coronavirus crisis, after a new investigation found Amazon and eBay are still failing to get to grips with blatant price-gouging on their websites.
More than a month after the competition regulator raised the alarm, and despite a warning from the Prime Minister, the consumer champion’s experts were able to easily find widespread evidence of sellers hawking household items for rip-off prices.
When Which? asked its members if they’d witnessed coronavirus profiteering, they provided a further dossier of hundreds of cases on Amazon Marketplace, eBay and other retailers within 48 hours.
Despite both Amazon and eBay removing hundreds of thousands of rogue listings, their actions to block listings are failing to prevent some unscrupulous sellers posting items in the first place, which means products including handwash, cleaning products and baby formula are still being sold for extortionate prices.
A simple search for Carex on eBay that took seconds revealed over 350 listings with a ‘buy it now’ price and over 240 active auctions running.The listings included two 600ml bottles of Carex handwash with a “buy it now” price of £40, and a multi-pack of six 250ml bottles of handwash, clearly labelled as £1 each, which had reached £31 in an auction, but still not reached the seller’s reserve price.
On Amazon, six bottles of Carex were listed for £39.95. One reviewer noted that they had been ripped off after paying £24.99 for a pack that arrived with £1 stamped on each bottle.
A bottle of Dettol all-purpose cleaner was £59.99 including postage and packaging on eBay, 24 times the normal price. On Amazon, a similar bottle of Dettol multi-purpose cleaner, which usually costs £2.79, was £19.31, including an £11.24 shipping charge.
Sellers had no qualms about exploiting families with young children either. On eBay, two packs of Aptamil First Infant Milk had a “buy it now” price of £37.17, more than double the usual price. An Amazon seller wanted £99.99 for a pack of four Aptamil Profutura Stage 3 milk powder, nearly the double the price at other retailers.
Some eBay sellers even included photos of listed products, including toilet rolls and Dettol surface cleaner, piled high in trollies or in their homes – suggesting they had little concern about facing scrutiny.
Researchers also saw a worrying trend on Amazon, where they found listings for products including Carex handwash and baby formula that had been removed as a result of Which?’s previous investigation 16-19 March now had new sellers using exactly the same URLs and offering the same products at sky-high prices.
Of the 11 listings previously removed by Amazon, Which?’s researchers found that five seemed to have reappeared with new and inflated prices when they checked again on 3 April.
The consumer champion’s latest investigation reinforces the need for the government to step in with emergency legislation to cap prices for essential products so that unscrupulous sellers are clearly prohibited from taking advantage of consumers and online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay can effectively clamp down on sales of these products at inflated prices.
The CMA, and its Covid-19 taskforce, should advise the government on the most appropriate legislation to cap prices and give the competition regulator the tools it needs to address price gouging for the duration of the crisis.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said:
“Amazon and eBay seem unable to stop coronavirus profiteering – leaving some unscrupulous sellers to have a field day exploiting people by selling essential items at appallingly high prices.
“It is time for the government, working with the CMA, to step in with strong action to stamp out price-gouging and keep the price of vital goods reasonable during this difficult time.”
Case study 1
In February I purchased four 500ml bottles of Hibiscrub from eBay for £21.28. I buy this every few months for my mum’s hands as she gets infections and blisters. The same seller is now selling the exact same pack for £89.99. Absolute disgrace! Lots of the eBay sellers are doing the same so I’m praying I don’t run out as I can’t afford these prices.
Case study 2
Trying to get a Braun thermometer due to underlying health problems, were £39.99 in Argos and John Lewis now out of stock but I can buy at inflated prices on Amazon and EBay,for anything up to £199!!! I don’t think so, profiteering at its worst.
Case study 3
I went on eBay to get my usual deodorants, as I’m 74 and can’t get to the supermarket for a delivery slot. FemFresh deodorant that usually costs around £3 was on eBay for £9. It’s a black market disgrace – now we know who’s been clearing the shelves for their own greedy gain. Where’s the law to stop this?
Case study 4
We are delivering food to elderly and vulnerable people in Suffolk, probe wipes that we bought before are now £50 more expensive than before Covid !!!
Notes to editors:
Which? searched for essential household items on eBay and Amazon Marketplace between 3 and 6 April 2020.
Which? advice guide on price gouging: https://www.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/
Examples of over-priced items:
A search for Carex on eBay revealed over 350 listings with a ‘buy it now’ price, meaning the price listed was the final price it would be sold for.
Which? also found over 240 active auctions running, which allow users to bid on items from a starting price. The vast majority of listings showed clear signs of opportunistic price gouging in both types of listings, including many items that were grossly overpriced.
Among ‘Buy it now’ listings we found:
Two 600ml bottles of handwash going for £40
A litre refill pack for £25 with postage – around ten times the typical price.
A Carex antibacterial gel and hand wash bundle for £30, when both could usually be bought for around £3.50 total.
The auction landscape for the same product was even more concerning.
A pack of six 250ml Carex, clearly labelled at £1 each, had a current price of £31 from 26 bids, but the reserve price from the seller had still not been met.
On Amazon, Which? found a listing selling six bottles of Carex for £39.95 – more than six times the typical amount. One reviewer noted that they had been ‘ripped off’ as they had paid £24.99 for six bottles that arrived with £1 clearly stamped on the bottle.
Another product in high demand – Carex antibacterial gel – was for sale by one seller for £14.99, instead of the usual £1.
Products reappearing on Amazon after previously being removed
A 500ml bottle of Carex liquid hand soap had previously been for sale for £19.99, despite usually costing just £3. Once the seller offering that price had been removed, the URL showed the product as out of stock. Within a short time, however, the same product with the same URL was being sold for £16.98.
A bundle of six 800g packs of Aptamil growing up milk had reappeared when Which? checked, on sale of £77 instead of the typical £48 for the same amount.
Which? shared 35 listings with eBay and all were removed, although it’s clear from the evidence above that the issue is still ongoing.
Which? searched for Dettol cleaning products on eBay, including bleach and antibacterial wipes. It found:
A bottle of Dettol all purpose cleaner for £50, 20 times the usual price of £2.50. It also had a £9.99 postage fee.
A bundle of six 500ml bottles of Dettol antibacterial surface cleanser sprays for £50, when they would typically cost around £10.5 total. The listing also showed an image of a trolley full of in demand products, including Dettol spray and several boxes of infant formula.
Which? also found Dettol products with high prices on Amazon, and extra price hikes hidden in the shipping costs. A 1.5 litre bottle of Dettol Power & Fresh Multi Purpose Cleaner Lime & Lemon was £8.07 (usually costing around £2.79) but also had a shipping charge of £11.24.
Those needing to use formula milk have had difficulty getting hold of it in supermarkets with reports of infant and follow-on formula going out of stock.
Which?’s investigation in early March uncovered inflated prices on infant milk, and now it’s found further evidence that unscrupulous sellers are taking advantage of desperate parents.
Searching for Aptamil formula on Amazon uncovered:
A pack of four Aptamil Profutura Stage 3 milk powder for £99.99 – each pack normally costs around £13.50 each in Boots, so this is nearly double the price.
A 800g pack of Aptamil Sensavia 2 Follow On Milk Formula being sold for £29.99, more than twice the usual £13.99 price at Boots.
Researchers found further evidence of price gouging on eBay too. Two packs of Aptamil First Infant Milk had a ‘buy it now’ price of £37.17, when two packs would usually cost around £16.
Examples flagged by Which? members and social media followers
The majority of reports affected household items that are well known to be affected – like branded cleaning products, toilet roll, and antibacterial hand gel.
Dettol bleach and cleaning sprays, being sold for ten times and in one case, 20 times the typical price. There was evidence of dozens of purchases at these prices before listings ended or stock was exhausted.
Sterilising fluid for baby bottles for more than ten times the original price
A bundle of one hand wash and one antibacterial gel for £30, instead of the £3.50 it would usually cost.
Dettol no touch soap refills for nearly three times the usual price.
Hundreds of examples of price-gouging were submitted by Which? members, including some who admitted paying well over the odds for products from online marketplaces. This backs up Which? evidence that found high numbers of sold items or bids on products on eBay. This suggests that many products have already been sold at heavily-inflated prices before the listings are taken down by eBay and Amazon.
One listing showed around 20 bottles of Dettol surface cleaner in a trolley, now being sold on eBay for around five times the original price. Other sellers showed toilet roll piled up in the home, in apparent disregard for the shortages that have hit supermarkets and shoppers in recent weeks.
Rights of reply
An eBay spokesperson said:
“We have extremely effective measures in place to combat price gouging – something that we’ve communicated to Which? multiple times – with heavy restrictions on the listing of some in-demand products at unreasonable prices, resulting in five million price automatically blocked attempts to price gouge, an additional 600,000 removed, and thousands of seller accounts suspended.”
“There is no place for price gouging on Amazon. We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.”