Following a series of COVID-19 themed roundtable discussions relating to key issues affecting consumers during the pandemic, CTSI and organisations including Which?, Money Saving Expert, Resolver, The British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) are calling for a stop to unscrupulous price gouging.
With retail outlets reopening this week, the roundtable members are urging retailers not to engage in price gouging – the practice of unjustifiably increasing the price of goods or services seen during the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
Whilst most businesses are acting honestly to help supply their communities with essentials, there are those who seek to take advantage of consumer needs for certain food, hygiene and household items. There is a concern that, whilst reports of price gouging appear to have decreased, the practice could ramp up as shops reopen. There is also the possibility that as the pandemic continues, new types of products could be required by consumers on a large scale, and these may become the focus for future, unjustifiable price increases.
Price gouging is not just limited to local shops. During the pandemic, Which? has found examples of essential products being sold online for hugely inflated prices, such as:
- cleaning products
- antibacterial handwash and gel
- baby formula
- sanitary products
One example was liquid antiseptic disinfectant, which is typically around 3, being sold for 29.99, an almost 1,000 percent price increase.
Sue Davies, Head of Consumer Protection at Which?, said: “It is unacceptable for people to be left at the mercy of unscrupulous sellers that are price gouging during the COVID-19 crisis and regulators must be empowered to take swift action to ensure this practice is stamped out. It is imperative we learn from this experience and ensure people are protected and that the prices of essential items stay reasonable during crises, both now and in the future.”
In March, the CMA set up a COVID-19 Taskforce to monitor and respond to competition and consumer problems arising from the pandemic. In its most recent public update from the Taskforce, the CMA confirmed that, since mid-April, the large majority of complaints received have been about unfair practices in relation to cancellations and refunds. On the issue of price rises, it had written to 264 traders that have collectively been the subject of over 3,100 complaints about unjustifiable price rises. It has found that the most complained about product is meat, followed by hand sanitiser, toilet paper and rice. The largest price increases concern hand sanitisers, with a reported median rise of just under 400%. The average increase across all reports is 160%.
The CMA is also collecting further evidence, including about price rises further up the supply chain. Where there is evidence that competition or consumer protection law may have been broken, it will take enforcement action as appropriate.
As the major retail trade body, the BRC condemns price gouging which is undertaken by a very small minority of traders. Reputable retailers have gone out of their way to ensure consumers can get access to the products they need during lockdown. The challenges have presented a huge opportunity for retailers of all sizes to establish a reputation for good customer service going forward and price gouging can only harm those that engage in it.
CTSI Chief Executive, Leon Livermore, said: “It is alarming that there are some businesses exploiting consumers at this vulnerable time. Business owners who inflate prices unjustifiably may well receive short-term profits, but in the longer term are severely damaging their reputations. Businesses have the opportunity to win over consumers and get long term loyalty by trading fairly with the needs of consumers during the pandemic at heart. UK consumers will remember the profiteers, and I have no doubt they will vote with their wallets once this crisis ends.”