Tell Amazon: Prevent price gouging during emergencies

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After the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a global health emergency, prices for medical supplies, including hand sanitizer, skyrocketed on Amazon.

A four-pack of Purell hand sanitizer was selling for $159. Two containers of Lysol wipes cost $70.

That’s not “good business;” that’s taking advantage of consumers during an emergency. And although Amazon has retroactively deleted some products for price gouging, these spikes should never have happened in the first place.

Price gouging during emergencies needs to end. Tell Amazon to implement safeguards that prevent prices from significantly inflating during states of emergency.

Price gouging is when sellers use emergencies as opportunities to inflate their prices exorbitantly due to increased demand. It’s a tactic that takes advantage of people in tough, or even dangerous, positions -- and it’s against the law in many states.

But as coronavirus has become an increasingly global threat, prices for critical supplies sold by third-party vendors and by Amazon itself, have shot up.

This isn’t the first time price gouging has run rampant on Amazon. As the Category 5 Hurricane Irma approached Florida in 2017, prices for basic emergency supplies went through the roof, with cases of bottled water seeing price increases of up to 500 percent at times.

There’s no reason price gouging should be allowed to continue on one of the largest online marketplaces in the country. Amazon’s algorithm should protect consumers in emergency situations, not allow skyrocketing prices.

Amazon agrees: There’s no place for price gouging on its platform. But while the company is taking action after prices spike, it clearly lacks the necessary controls to prevent significant increases during emergencies.

Amazon needs to do more to protect consumers from unfair price gouging during emergencies.

The fact that Amazon vendors are able to inflate prices on medical supplies that people believe they need to protect themselves and their families -- and on effective supplies like hand sanitizer -- shows a deep flaw in the company’s ability to protect consumers from unfair pricing during emergencies.

Instead of catching price gouging after the fact -- and after consumers in tough positions have potentially already paid exorbitant prices -- Amazon should have a system in place that prevents price gouging before it starts.

By implementing a system that prevents anyone -- Amazon, computer algorithm or seller --  from raising prices for products significantly above their 90-day averages during emergencies, Amazon would help to protect consumers who may be relying on its marketplace for supplies.

Add your name: Tell Amazon to implement safeguards to stop price gouging before it happens.

Thank you,

U.S. PIRG

1. Sui-Lee Wee, Donald G. McNeil Jr. and Javier C. Hernández, “W.H.O. Declares Global Emergency as Wuhan Coronavirus Spreads,” New York Times, January 30, 2020.

2. Jessica Guynn and Kelly Tyko, “Gouge much? Purell for $149, face masks for $20: Coronavirus price hikes are making everyone mad,” USA Today, March 3, 2020.

3. Jordan Valinsky, “Amazon deleted 1 million items for price gouging or false advertising about coronavirus,” CNN, March 2, 2020.

4. Andrew Ross Sorkin “Hurricane Price Gouging Is Despicable, Right? Not to Some Economists,” New York Times, September 11, 2017.

5. Tom Popomaronis, “Amid Preparations For Hurricane Irma, Amazon Draws Scrutiny For Price Increases,” September 6, 2017.

6. Marielle Segarra, “Amazon cracks down on COVID-19 price gouging,” Marketplace, March 3, 2020.