Business

Customers complain of price gouging as hand sanitizer sells out in stores

The global spread of coronavirus has sparked panic buying of hand sanitizer and some customers are complaining retailers that still have it in stock are jacking up the price, taking advantage of people's desperation.

A bottle of hand sanitizer is selling for as much as $184 on Amazon

All hand sanitizer products were completely sold out at this Toronto Shoppers Drug Mart store on Monday. (CBC/Sophia Harris)

The global spread of coronavirus has sparked panic buying of hand sanitizer and some customers are complaining retailers that still have it in stock are jacking up the price, taking advantage of people's desperation.

Hand sanitizer is a hot commodity these days, and many stores across North America have run out. That's because health experts say the best way to protect yourself is to keep your hands clean, either with soap and water or — if that's not available — an alcohol-based sanitizer.

On Monday, CBC News visited several Shoppers Drug Marts in Toronto, all of which had run out of hand sanitizer and were running low on antiseptic cleaning wipes. 

Frances Steciuk said she managed to find hand sanitizer at her local Shoppers in Toronto last week, but didn't buy it because she felt the price was inflated.

"I kind of hit the roof," said Steciuk, recalling her reaction when she saw travel-size, 60-ml bottles of hand sanitizer selling for $3.99 each. Steciuk said she recalls paying half that price previously. 

"While I can afford the $3.99 price, I didn't buy on principle," she said. "It struck me that those on tighter budgets might find the product unaffordable."

Frances Steciuk of Toronto said she was surprised when she saw travel-sized hand sanitizer selling for $3.99 at her local Shoppers Drug Mart. (submitted by Frances Steciuk)

Loblaws, which owns Shoppers Drug Mart, told CBC News the brand Steciuk's local store was selling wasn't one of its typical brands. 

Spokesperson Catherine Thomas said that — to meet local demand — the store had to go with a different brand that was still available. Based on the wholesale cost, the $3.99 price tag is still in line with its usual price structure, she said. 

Thomas also said Loblaws is addressing supply shortages at some of its Shoppers stores. "Our teams have increased inventory on those products and are working to get stock back in," she wrote in an email. 

Victory Battle of Toronto said that he wasn't prepared to pay $8 for a bottle of hand sanitizer at a dollar store. (CBC/Sophia Harris)

Victory Battle was also concerned about price gouging when he found hand sanitizer at an independently-owned dollar store in Toronto and didn't like the price — $8 for a 236-ml bottle.

"It's ridiculous," said Battle who opted not to buy the product. "I would rather take on the virus than take on people gouging me."

The store's manager, Carmella Limsiaco, told CBC News the store had no choice but to up the price if it wanted to keep supplying customers with hand sanitizer. 

Limsiaco said that the store sold a similar product for $3 each, but that — due to a supply shortage — it, too, had to source a different brand from a different supplier that charged a higher wholesale price. 

$184 for hand sanitizer?

Major online retailers are also facing criticism that third-party sellers on their sites are selling hand sanitizer at inflated prices.

A quick search for the product on Amazon's Canadian site revealed some outlandish offers by third-party dealers, such as $184.99 for the same hand sanitizer for which the Toronto dollar store was charging $8. 

Other examples on Amazon include two 236-ml bottles selling for $99.99 and a pack of 10 travel-sized bottles priced at $300. 

On Monday, CBC News found this ad for a couple 236-ml bottles of hand sanitizer selling on Amazon.ca by a third-party dealer for $99.99. (Amazon)

Similar inflated prices have appeared on Amazon's U.S. site, prompting U.S. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts to send a complaint letter on March 4 to the retail giant's owner, Jeff Bezos.

"Corporate American has a responsibility to prevent profiteering on the sales of items such as hand-sanitizer," wrote Markey. "No one should be allowed to reap a windfall from fear and human suffering."

Amazon told CBC News that it's actively monitoring its site and removing sellers that are inflating prices for hand sanitizer.

"There is no place for price gouging on Amazon," said spokesperson Andrew Gouveia in an email. "We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis."

On Monday, CBC News found this ad for a travel-sized bottle of hand sanitizer on eBay.ca selling for $40. (eBay)

On March 5, online shopping and auction site eBay also announced it was taking action against price gouging, stating that it had decided to ban from its site listings for coronavirus-related products such as disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizers.

CBC News asked eBay why, five days after the announcement, it was still easy to find hand sanitizer offers on the site, including ones at inflated prices. 

"We are making every effort to ensure that anyone who sells on our platform follows local laws and eBay policies," said eBay Canada in an emailed response.

Solution: wash your hands

Back in Toronto, Shoppers customer Steciuk said she hopes to see government action on coronavirus-related price gouging in Canada.

"It is something that should be on their radar," she said. "Putting profits before public safety — it shouldn't be allowed."

Canada's Competition Bureau, which enforces the Competition Act, said it couldn't reveal if it's investigating the issue. However, the bureau did confirm that it has received consumer complaints related to product sales associated with the coronavirus. 

Meanwhile, Steciuk still hasn't been able to find in stores what's she looking for: travel-sized bottles of hand sanitizer at what she deems a reasonable price. 

"What can you do?" she said "I'm just washing my hands." 

And that may be the best solution for everyone, as health experts say soap is actually the most effective way to keep hands germ-free.

About the Author

Sophia Harris

Business reporter

Sophia Harris covers business and consumer news. Contact: sophia.harris@cbc.ca

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