Price Gouging: My Fellow Americans?
A few days back my wife and I started to try to stock up on items that we might need for the next 2 weeks or so. It seemed like a good idea because the shelves in almost every grocery store were wiped out. For multiple hours spread out across several days we stocked up with items we would need from what we could find leftover at the multiple grocery markets near our home. There was not much to choose from.
My wife runs a cleaning company and it is a lean company so we do not overstock on items that are typically available at the local store. We buy as we need. Our thought was that we would need to stock up on cleaning items she uses to disinfect people’s homes and businesses during and after the COVID-19 scare. After all, this is a way for her to help stop the spread of this disease and help people feel and be more secure it the midst of a crisis. Lysol and Microban 24 are excellent products for this but we could not find them anywhere. We looked online and found people selling bottles of Microban and Lysol for 20$ each and more.
I began to worry that she might not be able to run her business if we couldn’t find it. I began to fear the worst and it crossed my mind that we should consider paying this excessively high price for the item before it got worse. It became evident to me that, whether this fear was necessary or not, it was real. The bottle of Microban 24 came in that moment to represent a tool of protection for my family. I perceived in my own mind that we truly needed this to protect our children and our mothers and other elderly and vulnerable family members of our family. Its level of necessity went up dramatically in that moment.
In a later survival shopping run I found a large amount of the Microban 24 across the shelves of several stores and so I purchased enough to run my wife’s business of disinfecting cleanups for at least 2 weeks. But there was still enough for me to buy a few extra bottles without cleaning off the shelf for the next customer, so I bought a couple of extra bottles. At first, admittedly, I though that I could sell just 3 or 4 of these online and pay for all the ones that we needed for the business with the profit. Before I even left the parking lot, I put them up on Ebay.
But as I drove home and thought about the situation that we are all in here together and watched in disbelief at the shear volume of people viewing this at this item at such a high price I couldn’t help but think. Just 2 days earlier I had been filled with a fear that I have never had, staring down the barrel of not being able to protect my own children with a simple bottle of Lysol or worrying that I might run out of milk or bread or toilette paper in my cushy little world. I couldn’t help but feel that fear that you feel when you walk into a grocery store that is 2/3 empty and realize the only thing that’s emptier is your fridge at home. And then I couldn’t help but seeing the face of a man or woman standing in front of those empty shelves thinking to themselves “how am I going to pull this off, how can I protect my family?” In less than an hour I had nearly 100 hits on the Microban advertisement.
I decided to myself that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t charge my brother or my sister, my grandma or my uncle or any of my fellow Americans 10 times the price for an item that I knew in my heart that they felt in their heart that they truly needed to protect themselves. More than anything in this world I want to create a sustainable business. I want to get rich, not for myself, but for my children. I will drive the same crappy car and wear the same clothes and work myself to the bone to get it done. I fear what would happen to them if I was not here to provide. I worry how my wife would get by. I pray to god every day to let me be successful in my legitimate business so I can build something that I can leave behind on this earth to take care of them for many years. I want them to have good lives. I want them to be okay if something happens to me tomorrow. But I cannot and will not achieve that goal at the expense of my fellow American.
At this point people were selling the 32oz spray bottles of Microban 24 for $40 each or more online and charging shipping on top of that. The bottle costs 3.99 and to sell it at that price would cost another $1 or $2 in fees so effectively they were charging about 10 times the price of the product. An idea popped into my head.
As everyone knows the shelves throughout stores in America are starting to look like the shelves in a small poor country in the midst of a political crisis. Everything that most people buy from week to week is completely wiped out. When you walk into a store like this subconsciously you begin to freak out a little and you start to feel the severity of the situation. If this doesn’t calm down soon you realize you might be in trouble. I have 3 small children that depend on me to bring home the things they need to be comfortable. When I walk down isle after isle of empty shelves, I get a little scared because I know in the back of my mind that I have to find a way to feed those kids; it’s what I live for. There has never been a point in my 35 years on this earth that I have seen anything like what is happening across the country today. I react very coolly to most stressful situations but I can’t help but to admit to you that this situation of existential threat has made me nothing short of SCARED.
What I decided to do was to sell the Microban 24 at the average ridiculous price to determine that not only were these bottles being advertised at this ridiculous price, but also that people were actually buying them at that price. I promoted the listing at the average add rate and as sure as the sunrise I sold all three bottles in less than 10 minutes. I’ve sold a few hot items on eBay before but that is extremely fast to sell a new product that you have never sold before and have no reputation for selling. Never mind at a price 8 or 10 times higher than the price in store for a common good.
The people that bought this item must have had enough money to buy it and they must have perceived in their mind that this exchange was so necessary that they would go through with it. They felt as though they needed it even at this high price. Since this is a disinfectant it is a good weapon to have against Coronavirus and the perception was clearly that this defense was needed no matter how crazy the cost.
After the sales were paid for, I immediately packed the items with great care and prepared them for shipment, adding excessive padding and protection. I knew that these products needed to get to their destination with a level of life and death urgency. I knew they needed to not be damaged along the way because they were in short supply and the buyers needed them NOW. You don’t pay $35 for a 4$ product unless you need it like yesterday.
I don’t know the buyers and they don’t know me. They had no idea my intentions to refund the price they paid after the sale. They only knew they needed Microban and that I had it. But I couldn’t help but see them. A mother or father who runs a Salon in Connecticut, who now has to shut the operation down for the next 2 weeks or more, with little promise of compensation. A beautiful son or daughter trying to keep their self alive because they have had past health issues and this flu season could be their last. Still another trying to keep her mom from getting this disease because she is elderly and has a weakened immune system. I couldn’t help but worry for how they would support their own families in this unprecedented time. In that moment we might as well have been blood relatives, because we were the same in this simple principle, just trying to protect whats important to us in this world. No 1 person more important than the other.
As I wrote to each customer, I felt a mix of emotions. I was excited to extend the kindness that we refunded all money from each purchase to them. Essentially no humans were harmed during this test. But I was also sad. Sadder than I have been in a while because I knew that not everyone was being so kind. Many people were just paying the price and moving on. I was sad for the customers that I had sold this to because I couldn’t forget the fear I felt for my own family days earlier when I was desperately searching for this same 32 fluid ounces of liquid defense. I found it quickly but clearly these buyers lived in areas where it was not available at all and I worried for all those people and wished I could ease their fears.
Is price gouging always wrong? In economics, money will flow to where it is most useful or profitable to have it. Products in high demand will, in most cases, eventually rise in price. This rise helps to prevent people from over purchasing the product and can help to slow the outflow of a good. The higher the price the less likely you are to buy more of it unless it will be very useful or valuable to you. But in times of national or worldwide crisis, and with any essential item in any time of trouble, I think it is clear more now than ever before that price gouging is morally wrong. In order to feel this all you have to do is put yourself in the customers shoes. How would you feel if someone charged you 10 times the price of an item you regularly buy and use but that is in scarce supply because it is necessary for survival in that time or circumstance. It hurts the heart.
It’s one thing to charge $25 for a $2 umbrella in a rain storm in New York. It’s a totally different thing to charge $25 for a $2 protective mask and gloves in the middle of a global pandemic. No one should toy with the safety and security of a fellow citizen in the midst of a crisis. Furthermore, people should be realistic about their needs in a crisis. Coronavirus and Covid-19 are not serious enough to warrant stocking up on toilette paper for the next 6 months. The system clearly has a hard time handling this kind of buying behavior and the result is that the next customer is left wondering what they’re going to do to meet their needs. It could be your mom or your sister, your daughter or your son, it could even be you next time.
If you’re in a position to help, help. Don’t take advantage of peoples fears or needs. If you have an extra bottle of Lysol, sell it at cost if you don’t need it. Better yet email us and we will give you a prepaid label and box to ship it to them. Because I bet you that someone somewhere needs it pretty bad right now. Be the hands and feet of whatever god you serve, and if you don’t believe in a god then be what you want people to be to you. Make this the place you want to live. It starts with one person, one random act of kindness and mercy, and it spreads like…well…maybe it’s too soon but I’m going to say it anyway. Kindess and Mercy spreads like COVID-19.