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Price-gouging still rife on marketplaces amidst coronavirus

Amazon and eBay's efforts to combat consumer exploitation during coronavirus are still falling short

Price-gouging still rife on marketplaces amidst coronavirus

A follow-up investigation by Which?, and feedback from Which? members, reveals how online marketplaces are still failing to adequately address inflated prices for household items during the coronavirus crisis.

Since we first reported the issue to eBay and Amazon on 20 March, Which? member feedback and our own research shows that far more needs to be done to combat opportunistic sellers actively listing and selling items at rip-off prices.

In our follow-up, we found:

  • Hundreds of examples of price-gouging were still being reported by Which? members, weeks after we flagged the issue.
  • Evidence of apparent ‘stockpiling’, as listings showed basketfuls of sought-after products now being sold at inflated prices.
  • Follow-up research easily found hundreds of active ‘Buy it now’ and auction listings on eBay at inflated prices.
  • Amazon listings that had previously been removed, with new sellers offering products at high prices

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?

Household items still found at inflated prices

Two weeks after our initial investigation, we asked Which? members and those following us on social media to report instances of price-gouging on everyday items. In just two days, we received hundreds of examples of how price inflation continued to be an issue on marketplaces.

The majority of reports related to household items that are well known to be affected – such as branded cleaning products, toilet roll, and antibacterial hand gel.

These included:

  • Dettol bleach and cleaning sprays, being sold for 10 times and, in one case 20 times, the typical price. There was evidence of dozens of purchases at these prices before listings ended or stock was exhausted.
  • Sterilising fluid for baby bottles for more than 10 times the original price.
  • A bundle of one hand wash and one antibacterial gel for £30, instead of the £3.50 it would usually cost.
  • Dettol no touch soap refills for nearly three times the usual price.

The measures marketplaces are putting in place do seem to have some impact – a number of listings were removed or ‘ended’ while our research was being conducted but, crucially, we found evidence of many products having already been sold at heavily inflated prices before this happened, and many more new listings with inflated prices appearing.


Find out more: how to spot and report price gouging, plus information on getting your money back


Which? members comment on price-gouging

This activity was clearly causing some distress for shoppers, with many commenting at their surprise at the state of the marketplaces during coronavirus.

Which? member comments included:

  • On the 17 February I purchased four 500ml bottles of Hibiscrub from eBay for £21.28. I buy this every few months for my mum’s hands as she gets infections and blisters. The same seller is now selling the exact same pack for £89.99. Absolute disgrace! Lots of the eBay sellers are doing the same so I’m praying I don’t run out as I can’t afford these prices.
  • The amount of sanitiser I bought was only 500ml and this was £56.98. Totally ripped off, and totally my own fault.
  • I went on eBay to get my usual deodorants, as I’m 74 and can’t get to the supermarket for a delivery slot. FemFresh deodorant that usually costs around £3 was on eBay for £9. It’s a black market disgrace – now we know who’s been clearing the shelves for their own greedy gain. Where’s the law to stop this?
  • Trying to get a Braun thermometer due to underlying health problems, were £39.99 in Argos and John Lewis now out of stock but I can buy at inflated prices on Amazon and eBay for anything up to £199. Profiteering at its worst.

eBay listings showed evidence of ‘stockpiling’

Analysis of Which? member feedback and our own follow-up research showed a number of product photos with these sought-after items ‘stacked up’ in the home or, in one case, in a supermarket trolley. These sellers appeared to be bulk buying to profit online – contributing to the supermarket shortage that has plagued the public in recent weeks.

One listing showed around 20 bottles of Dettol surface cleaner in a trolley, now being sold on eBay for around five times the original price. Other sellers showed toilet roll piled up in the home, in apparent disregard for the shortages that have plagued supermarkets and shoppers in recent weeks.

Are eBay and Amazon doing enough to combat price-gouging?

When we reported our initial findings to the marketplaces, both said strict measures were in place to help combat price-gouging from sellers. Both also admitted to removing tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of listings, as well as banning seller accounts, which demonstrates the scale of the issue.

However, weeks after initially sharing our research with marketplaces, simple searches for at-risk products being sold by third-party sellers suggest far more could be done to address this problem.

Carex

A search for Carex on eBay revealed more than 350 listings with a ‘buy it now’ price, meaning the price listed was the final price it would be sold for.

We also found over 240 active auctions running, which allow users to bid on items from a starting price. The vast majority of listings showed clear signs of opportunistic price-gouging in both types of listings, including many items that were grossly overpriced.

Among ‘Buy it now’ listings we found:

  • Two 600ml bottles of handwash going for £40
  • A litre refill pack for £25 with postage – around 10 times the typical price.
  • A Carex antibacterial gel and hand wash bundle for £30, when both could usually be bought for around £3.50 total.

The auction landscape for the same product was even more concerning. A pack of six 250ml Carex gels, clearly labelled at £1 each, had a current price of £31 from 26 bids, but the reserve price from the seller had still not been met.

On Amazon, we found a listing selling six bottles of Carex for £39.95 – nearly six times the typical amount. One reviewer noted that they had been ‘ripped off’ as they had paid £24.99 for six bottles that arrived with £1 clearly stamped on the bottle.

Another product in high demand – Carex antibacterial gel – was for sale by one seller for £14.99, instead of the usual £1.

Dettol

We searched for Dettol cleaning products on eBay, including bleach and antibacterial wipes. We found:

  • A bottle of Dettol all-purpose cleaner for £50, 25 times the usual price of £2.50. It also had a £9.99 postage fee.
  • A bundle of six 500ml bottles of Dettol antibacterial surface cleanser sprays for £50, when they would typically cost around £10.50 in total. The listing also showed an image of a trolley full of in-demand products, including Dettol spray and several boxes of infant formula.

We also found Dettol products with high prices on Amazon, and extra price hikes hidden in the shipping costs. A 1.5 litre bottle of Dettol Power & Fresh Multi Purpose Cleaner Lime & Lemon was £8.07 (usually costing around £2.79) but also had a shipping charge of £11.24.

Baby formula

We understand the importance of breastfeeding, but those needing to use formula milk have had difficulty getting hold of it in supermarkets, with reports of infant and follow-on formula going out of stock.

Our investigation in early March uncovered inflated prices on infant milk, and now we’ve found further evidence that unscrupulous sellers are taking advantage of desperate parents.

Searching for Aptamil formula on Amazon uncovered:

  • A pack of four Aptamil Profutura Stage 3 milk powder for £99.99 – each pack normally costs around £13.50 in Boots, so this is nearly double the price.
  • A 800g pack of Aptamil Sensavia 2 Follow On Milk Formula being sold for £29.99, more than twice the usual £13.99 price at Boots.

We found further evidence of price-gouging on eBay too. Two packs of Aptamil First Infant Milk had a ‘buy it now’ price of £37.17, when two packs would usually cost around £16.

Amazon failing to monitor reported listings

When we shared the findings from our initial investigation, Amazon told us it had removed the offers we flagged, and the URL for the listing showed the item as ‘out of stock’. But we found that sellers quickly added new stock – and that the new offers still had extortionate prices attached.

A 500ml bottle of Carex liquid hand soap had previously been for sale for £19.99, despite usually costing just £3. Once the seller offering that price had been removed, it appeared as out of stock. Within a short time, however, the same product with the same URL was being sold for £16.98.

A bundle of six 800g packs of Aptamil growing up milk had reappeared when we checked, on sale of £77 instead of the typical £48 for the same amount.

Of the 11 listings we shared with Amazon, we found that five had new and inflated prices when we checked on 3 April.

We shared 35 listings with eBay and all were removed, although it’s clear from the evidence above that the issue is still ongoing.

Marketplaces still failing to tackle profiteering

We are now calling for urgent government action that would limit the prices of essential products during the coronavirus crisis.

A spokesperson for eBay told us:

‘We have extremely effective measures in place to combat price-gouging – something that we’ve communicated to Which? multiple times – with heavy restrictions on the listing of some in-demand products at unreasonable prices, resulting in five million automatically blocked attempts to price-gouge, an additional 600,000 removed, and thousands of seller accounts suspended.’

Amazon said:

‘There is no place for price-gouging on Amazon. We are disappointed that bad actors are attempting to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis and, in line with our long-standing policy, have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers. We continue to actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies.’

Yet a fortnight after we reported our initial findings, and after a warning from the Prime Minister and the CMA, we were able to easily find widespread evidence of sellers hawking household items for rip-off prices.

And we’re not alone in finding evidence that action isn’t working. The CMA told us that it has received thousands of complaints so far, with the majority being in relation to food, drink and hygiene and personal care products (eg hand sanitiser, toilet paper and face masks).

Which? calls for urgent action

Our latest findings reinforce the need for the government to step in with emergency legislation to cap prices for essential products so that unscrupulous sellers are clearly prohibited from taking advantage of consumers and online marketplaces like Amazon and eBay can effectively clamp down on sales of these products at inflated prices.

The CMA, and its COVID-19 taskforce, should advise the government on the most appropriate legislation to cap prices and give the competition regulator the tools it needs to address price gouging for the duration of the crisis.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at Which?, said: ‘ Amazon and eBay seem unable to stop coronavirus profiteering – leaving some unscrupulous sellers to have a field day exploiting people by selling essential items at appallingly high prices.

‘It is time for the government, working with the CMA, to step in with strong action to stamp out price-gouging and keep the price of vital goods reasonable during this difficult time.’

We want to hear from you – if you spot a product that is being sold for an inflated and unfair price, send the screenshot and URL to images@which.co.uk.

Additional research and reporting by Paul Lester.

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