CHICAGO — In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, West Side business owner Liz Abunaw needed to pick up some hand sanitizer.
Panicked shoppers had picked up all of the sanitizer in the stores she checked on March 12. She finally found it at Shell Auto Center, 505 N. Ashland Ave. in West Town: off-brand, 8-ounce bottles of hand sanitizer selling for a whopping $19.99.
“It wasn’t even Purell,” she said.
Faced with the possibility of not offering hand sanitizer to customers at her Forty Acres Fresh Market, where food would be sold, Abunaw bit the bullet, paying the ridiculous price.
As coronavirus continues to spread, more alleged cases of price gouging have been reported nationally and in Chicago, prompting state and national officials to call for consumers to report retailers engaging in the illegal practice in their neighborhoods.
In Illinois, Attorney General Kwame Raoul said Monday his office has received more than 525 price gouging complaints statewide and said businesses found to be marking up prices to a unrealistic amount are being asked to sign agreements with the attorney general’s office agreeing not to engage in further gouging.
Businesses who violate their agreements can be sued under the state’s Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Practices Act, can be fined up to $50,000 and ordered to shut down, Raoul said.
In Chicago, Block Club Chicago has learned of several suspected price gouging examples at stores across the city.
At Dollar Store.com, 4748 N. Cumberland Ave. near O’Hare, a 2-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer was selling for $5.99. At Target, a 2-ounce bottle of sanitizer costs $0.65 online. Dollar Store.com was also selling toilet paper for $1.99 a roll.
Although Dollar Store.com is a national franchise, the owner of Cumberland Avenue store said he determines the prices in his store. He told Block Club his supplier price gouged him.
“We used to get them for .65 and sell them for one dollar,” store owner Sam JZ said of hand sanitizer. “Then demand shot up and the company that we bought them from raised it to $3.50 per bottle. We tried telling them they can’t gouge prices but they said take it or leave it. The toilet paper was the same story.”
Although he acknowledged the prices were high, he said “a lot of people praised us for having it in stock.” He said he eventually ended up donating his hand sanitizer supply to the Salvation Army.
At Tony’s Fresh Market, which has six Chicago stores, the price on chicken breasts doubled to around $5.99. And Fresh Farms, 2626 W. Devon Ave. in Rogers Park, was selling a gallon of milk for $9.99 that was priced at $5.99 the week before.
Block Club confirmed these prices in person. Representatives from the stores refused comment.
This week, the Shell station on Ashland had dropped the hand sanitizer to a more reasonable price: $4 for the large, 8-ounce bottle Abunaw bought.
“People will remember the businesses that took full advantage, and the short-term money isn’t worth the long-term damage to the customer relationship,” Abunaw said. “As a grocery business owner, I could be charging a nice premium on fresh produce but I choose to remain affordable for all because it’s the right thing to do.”
As with other large, tragic events, coronavirus price gouging wasn’t unexpected. Back on March 9, the Consumer Brands Association wrote a letter to U. S. Attorney General William Barr urging action to protect consumers. The group represents companies like Coca Cola, Colgate-Palmolive and Clorox
On that same day, Barr said the government will take bad actors to task and said “individuals or companies that fix prices or rig bids for personal health protection equipment such as sterile gloves and face masks could face criminal prosecution.”
Some large companies have taken steps to stop it on their own.
After several third-party sellers were accused of price gouging on sales of face masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes, Amazon implemented more stringent rules. e-Bay also began blocking or removing many items from sellers that it felt were taking advantage of people and encouraged consumers to report any listings they suspect of price gouging.
Government officials are urging consumers to report price gouging so they can investigate claims and take action against retailers. In Illinois, complaints of price gauging can be filed with the Illinois Attorney General here.
Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.