Walmart hand sanitizer

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'Stop Price Gouging,' 33 Attorneys General Tell Amazon, Walmart, Others

The attorneys general said some sellers on Craigslist and Facebook are jacking up prices on hand sanitizer by as much as 10 times the normal cost. Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images hide caption

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Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

The attorneys general said some sellers on Craigslist and Facebook are jacking up prices on hand sanitizer by as much as 10 times the normal cost.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Online platforms have "an ethical obligation" to root out price gouging on hand sanitizer and other high-demand products during the coronavirus pandemic and beyond, top law enforcement officials from across the country say.

In letters to Amazon, Walmart, eBay, Facebook and Craigslist on Wednesday, 33 attorneys general say these companies' efforts to crack down on overpriced items on their selling platforms have so far "failed to remove unconscionably priced critical supplies."

The officials are calling on the companies to create policies that look at prices historically to detect surges, set up a portal for shoppers to report pricing complaints and proactively monitor and respond to spiking prices at all times and not just during emergencies.

"These are just a few potential solutions, and we hope your company will put its considerable technological prowess to work ... to better protect your customers," the attorneys general wrote in letters to the companies.

"We believe you have an ethical obligation and duty to help your fellow citizens in this time of need by doing everything in your power to stop price gouging in real-time," they added.

Shoppers have filed hundreds of complaints of massive price hikes on face masks, sanitizers and other supplies online as they rushed to stock up for the coronavirus pandemic. This continued even as the companies cracked down, removing or even banning listings of particular products.

The attorneys general cited sellers on Craigslist and Facebook as jacking up prices on hand sanitizer by as much as 10 times the normal cost. They also cited a report by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group earlier this month that found that 1 in 6 products sold directly by Amazon itself (not through third-party sellers) jumped in price by at least 50% in February.

On Monday, Amazon reiterated in a blog post that "it has zero tolerance for price gouging" and that it has already removed more than 500,000 listings because of coronavirus-based price gouging and suspended more than 3,900 U.S. selling accounts for violating fair pricing policies.

Walmart and eBay both said they are actively monitoring pricing for high-demand items. Walmart last week wrote to attorneys general that it can "automatically unpublish items that are priced substantially in excess of prices recently offered on Walmart Marketplace or on competing sites, or that appear to be the subject of price gouging, or other unfair or abusive pricing practices."

Facebook said it has removed ads and sale listings for high-demand items including coronavirus testing kits. "While enforcement is not perfect," the company said in a statement, "we have put several automated detection mechanisms in place to block or remove this material from our platform."

Craigslist did not respond to NPR's inquiry Wednesday.

Price gouging laws vary across the U.S., but they generally go after retailers and wholesalers for unfair markups, particularly during emergencies. Many states give some flexibility for prices to go up in response to shortages and hoarding behavior, typically by around 10% to 30% over prices in earlier months.


Walmart CEO says hand sanitizer may be scarce 'for some time'

As coronavirus concerns grow worldwide, cleaning supplies are flying off retailer's shelves, leaving ghost-town-like aisles in stores.

Unfortunately, it appears those empty shelves might continue to remain bare for a while, Walmart CEO and president Doug McMillon admitted on Friday during a coronavirus press conference in the White House's Rose Garden.

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WMTWALMART, INC.138.37-1.01-0.72%

"Hand sanitizer is going to be very difficult to have 100 percent on stock on for some time," McMillon said. "We're still replenishing it and shipping it, but as soon as it hits the stores, it's going."


McMillon blamed the shortages in surface cleaners, paper supplies and cleaning supplies on the stressed supply chains for the shortages.

A vendor applies hand sanitizer while selling programs before the cancellation of the baseball game between the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Mariners Thursday, March 12, 2020, in Surprise, Ariz. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

"All the retailers have been working hand-in-hand with the suppliers to bring that to the markets as fast as we can," McMillon promised.


Meanwhile, McMillon encouraged Americans who are looking for those items to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, which includes diligently washing your hands with hot water and soap.


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Coronavirus rationing: Target, Walmart limit purchases of hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, toilet paper

Shoppers hoping to stock up on hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes are running out of options as more coronavirus cases continue to surge.

Many stores including Target, Walmart, Kroger and Publix are restricting shoppers by placing limits on how many of these COVID-19-related items that shoppers can buy with signs citing "high demand" or "increased demand."

Target confirmed to USA TODAY that it began limiting purchases over the weekend, limiting customers to six disinfectant wipes, hand sanitizers and hand and face wipes per person. Publix set a limit of two of each of the sanitizers, along with masks, rubbing alcohol, bleach, facial tissue, and cups, plates and utensils.

Walmart said in a statement that store managers have been authorized to "manage their inventory, including the discretion to limit sales quantities on items that are in unusually high demand." The limits can vary by location.

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Limits could have halted price gouging

Experts say the rationing and limits should have started earlier and could have prevented price gouging and hoarding.

Kelly Goldsmith, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University, has studied consumer behaviors around scarcity and how consumers behave. This panic shopping "is way worse than Black Friday because nobody's going to die if they don't get that flat screen on discount from Walmart," she said. 

Goldsmith, who was a contestant on the reality show "Survivor" in 2001, said her fear is there will be violent outbreaks with fights over supplies. Law enforcement has already responded to calls from frustrated shoppers including one March 5 at a California Costco, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Last week, Costco said it was struggling to keep some products on shelves, such as bottled water and other goods, due to the panic caused by the virus.

"I think rationing is great. I wish people had started sooner and talking more about it because I think it would create a lot of comfort among consumers if they didn't have to worry that their Doomsday prepper neighbor down the street taking all the Purell and the toilet paper,” Goldsmith said.

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From empty shelves to 'panic buying'

Tinglong Dai, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University Carey Business School, said when consumers see empty shelves, it leads them into a “vicious cycle of panic buying,” which he said rationing can help break.

“For those high-demand products, rationing provides something that price changes cannot achieve – it helps maintain a reasonable level of product availability,” Dai said. “When consumers value product availability, assurance of product availability reduces the pressure of panic buying.”

Empty shelves have customers flocking to online shopping hoping to get the household products delivered to their homes.

Chieh Huang, CEO of, said the length of the buying surge has been surprising to the e-commerce shopping club and different from shorter "weather-related stock-up surges."

"We’re seeing a lot of first-time buyers coming online, and in the coming weeks, I suspect we’ll see them stay online given the ease of placing an order," Huang told USA TODAY.

Online shopping experienced an 817% jump in February compared with the previous month, according to Adobe Analytics.

More than 1,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the U.S., according to John Hopkins University. The U.S. death toll rose to 31, while the worldwide total exceeded 4,300.

There are also benefits for retailers to ration. It makes them look "proactive, responsive and empathetic," Goldsmith said.

"I think consumers really appreciate that I think it would camp down a lot of consumer concerns," Goldsmith said. "I just wish they had done it sooner but it's never too late."

Follow Kelly Tyko @kellytyko and Coral Murphy on Twitter @CoralMerfi

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