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14 May 2020

Price-gougers selling Covid-19 essentials for at least double the typical price

With thousands of essential items sold at inflated prices by coronavirus profiteers, we're calling on the government, working with the CMA, to step in with emergency legislation

Which? has uncovered hundreds of listings from some third-party sellers seeking to profiteer by selling essentials at inflated prices across online marketplaces, along with evidence that thousands have been sold.

We've also heard from vulnerable people who have had no option but to purchase their essentials via marketplaces, no matter the cost, while others have told us that they've been forced to go without rather than pay extortionate prices online.

By analysing the first page of search results on eBay and Amazon for popular brands of essential items, we found:

  • At least 1,900 Dettol products were bought at inflated prices via sellers on eBay
  • The majority of products checked on Amazon were listed by sellers at inflated prices, including 98% of Carex items
  • Multiple instances of products on sale for more than 10 times the typical price

We also analysed other online marketplaces, including OnBuy, where we found Dettol sprays being listed for more than six times the typical price.

Which? also quizzed consumers who had turned to online marketplaces during lockdown, and examined the reports coming through our price-gouging reporting tool. 58% told us they had found unreasonable price hikes on online marketplaces, the majority of which were on Amazon and eBay.

Amazon and eBay are by far the most popular online marketplaces with UK consumers, according to data analytics company GlobalData. More than 60% of online shoppers had purchased from Amazon, and 40% from eBay, in the 12 months to September 2019. This figure is likely to be even higher in 2020, as consumers turn to well-known online marketplaces for everyday purchases during lockdown and beyond.

Of the other 42% of reports to Which?'s price-gouging tool, a quarter were about supermarkets or large chain stores, 13% on a store's own website, and 2% were about local stores or independent shops.

Help us stop price-gouging: use our price-gouging report tool to tell us about inflated prices.

Price-gouging on eBay

We searched for four popular brands of essential items on eBay - Andrex, Carex, Dettol and Kleenex - between 23 and 29 April 2020, and analysed the first page of 'buy it now' search results.

Thousands of essential items bought on eBay

Based on the visible eBay sales history for items, we were appalled to find that, unknown to the brands, thousands had been sold for at least double the typical price you would find them in the supermarket, including:

  • More than 1,900 Dettol products, including household sprays
  • More than 200 Carex-branded items, such as handwash and antibacterial gel
  • 175 Andrex products, including toilet roll and moist washlets
  • 94 packs of Kleenex tissues

While we found some listings that had sold thousands, only the last 100 transactions are displayed. Our analysis only includes the number of items we know were sold at the listed price. And we only analysed the first page of search results. With Dettol, for example, there are more than 1,600 listings. The number sold is likely to be far higher.

In fact, in our latest survey, 43% of those we spoke to who had bought an overpriced essential item, bought it via eBay.

Majority of items at least double the price

Based on the first page of listings on eBay, the majority of items were listed for at least twice the price in every category.

This included:

  • 85% of Dettol items, while 22% were a massive five times the supermarket price.
  • £12.99 for a 400ml bottle of Dettol Anti-Bacterial Disinfectant Spray, despite the usual price of £1 in shops.
  • An individual bar of Dettol soap, usually available in packs of four for around 30p per soap, listed for more than 10 times the price.

A 500ml bottle of Dettol surface cleanser, usually sold for £1.75 or less, was on sale for more than £9 by one seller. In the reviews, a buyer said that they had been forced to buy it at an 'exorbitant price' for their elderly mother who suffers from Parkinson's disease.

  • 81% of Carex products - including hand wash and antibacterial gels - were being sold for double the price you would usually find them in a supermarket.
  • Two 250ml bottles of 'fun edition' Carex hand wash that would usually cost a couple of pounds were on sale for £15.94.
  • A bundle of two 50ml Carex hand gels were £16, when these would normally cost around £3 for both.

We also found that 60% of Andrex and 50% of Kleenex listings were double the price.

One seller, who is based in the UK, was using the postage price to hide the markup on both Andrex and Kleenex products. They were charging £9.70 to ship three packs of Andrex washlets from Welwyn Garden City. Including postage and packaging, buyers would pay £14.69 buying through eBay, instead of the regular price of £4.50.

Another listing from the same seller - a two pack of Kleenex tissues - had an item price of £3.99, but a postage cost of £8.50.

What action has eBay taken?

We shared our findings with eBay. A spokesperson said: 'It is highly irresponsible of Which? to repeatedly mis-represent the reality of price gouging as part of its ongoing campaign against online marketplaces. eBay gives people a great way to access the items they need - especially during lockdown - and we invest heavily in measures to ensure they can do so safely.

'While a small minority of unscrupulous sellers do attempt to take advantage of other users, effective safeguards have been in place for weeks to prevent this.'

Despite having effective safeguards in place for weeks, eBay went on to remove all of the hundreds of listings of essential items being sold at inflated prices that we shared with it.

Read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?.

Price-gouging on Amazon

We searched for Carex and Dettol products on Amazon, and analysed the prices for the products on the first page by the default sorting.

While Amazon doesn't display the number of products sold, our survey of 2,004 people revealed that, of those who had bought a product that they felt had been subject to an unreasonable price hike:

  • 56% had bought baby formula or nappies
  • 50% bought bleach products
  • 48% had bought toilet rolls
  • 47% bought paracetamol, Calpol or thermometers

But how much are people paying for overpriced essentials on Amazon? We found that it could well be five times the price.

Carex five times the price on Amazon

56% of Carex products on the first page of search results were being sold for five times the price or more on Amazon Marketplace, and 9% were on sale for 10 times the price.

In fact, 98% of those on the first page of search results were on offer for double the price or more.

A pack of two 50ml bottles of Carex antibacterial hand gel were £24.99 instead of the usual £2 - around 12 times the price.

Dettol for sale via Amazon

63% of Dettol products listed by Amazon sellers on the first page of search results were double the price or more.

A pack of 10 Dettol lemon and lime floor wipes was priced at £18.99, more than nine times the usual £2 price.

One seller listed a 1-litre bottle of Dettol Power & Fresh Advance Antibacterial Spray Pomegranate, which can be bought for £2 in supermarkets, for £14.70.

What action has Amazon taken?

An Amazon spokesperson said: 'There is no place for price gouging on Amazon. When a bad actor attempts to artificially raise prices on basic need products during a global health crisis, it's bad for customers and the hundreds of thousands of honest businesses selling in our store.

'In line with our long-standing policy, we have recently blocked or removed hundreds of thousands of offers and pursued legal action against bad actors.'

Find out what to do if you spot price-gouging, and how to report it.

People turning to marketplaces

In the majority of cases, stock has returned to normal at the supermarkets, although our latest survey revealed that flour and antibacterial gel are the two items that 23% of people are still struggling to find.

But we've heard from people who chose to go without an item instead of purchasing it at an inflated price.

Price-gouging on OnBuy

OnBuy, which claims to be one of the world's fastest-growing online marketplaces, has been reported to us by people trying to find Dettol products.

People who used our price-gouging reporting tool said that they had found:

  • Dettol antibacterial washing machine cleaner on sale for £19.59 via OnBuy, instead of the typical £3.50.
  • Dettol anti-bacterial spray, found in a bundle of three 750ml bottles on OnBuy for £45.94, rather than the usual £2.50 a bottle.
  • 400ml Dettol spray for £18.99, with another listing of three sprays for £34.83.

We found more examples of products listed by sellers for inflated prices, including a bundle of six 750ml Dettol Power and Pure kitchen sprays, usually £3 each, being sold for more than £40 including postage.

A pack of Dettol wipes was for sale for £15.81, more than three times the usual £5.

What action has OnBuy taken?

Cas Paton, CEO of OnBuy.com, told us that price inflation is an issue they take very seriously, and that they've recruited 20 members of staff to keep pricing fair. He said 'our automated measures to flag sellers we suspect of price inflation are based on market-adjusted data sets and customer reports.

'We manually investigate each incident. We are constantly investing in data and applying it to tens of millions of products across more than 6,000 product categories.

'COVID-19 has had an impact on the entire national workforce, as we've adapted to working at home and among our families, but also, market price distortions have occurred that have affected detection relative to a normal pricing scenario, and that's harder to plan for. It's unprecedented, and we're learning.'

Vulnerable people at risk from inflated prices

For many, online marketplaces offer a much-needed lifeline, particularly for vulnerable people who are shielding or self-isolating and are struggling to access groceries they need.

These vulnerable people are turning to online marketplaces, where we've found they're at risk of being exploited by profiteers.

Kathryn Taylor told us that, due to serious health conditions, she uses Dettol products to keep her home hygienic. As she's been unable to buy these from Tesco, she looked to buy a 500ml bottle on Amazon, and was shocked to find that it would cost her £29.99 instead of the usual £1. She said: 'It's disgusting. I cannot afford to pay prices like these and the Dettol brand is the best product for my everyday essential needs.'

Another person said that they had to buy products at an inflated price, as they were buying them for work purposes and had 'no choice'. That's something that Which? member Debbie, who runs a Suffolk-based Meals on Wheels charity, knows all about.

Emergency legislation is needed

Our findings paint a troubling picture for consumers looking to purchase essential items during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerningly show that people are actually buying products at inflated prices.

Which? is calling for emergency legislation to give regulators the tools to swiftly crack down on price-gouging on certain essential products during this crisis, and any future ones.

The UK is trailing behind other countries in introducing laws to combat price-gouging and protect consumers during the coronavirus crisis and future emergencies.

Sue Davies, head of consumer protection at Which?, said: 'It cannot be right that potentially thousands of people have paid unjustifiably high prices to buy essential items during this COVID-19 crisis. While welcome, it's clear that measures being put in place by online marketplaces are not enough to stop coronavirus profiteering by those seeking to exploit the current situation.

'The government, working with the CMA, needs to step in with emergency legislation to enable swift action to crack down on price-gouging and keep the price of essential items reasonable during crises both now and in the future.'

What to do if you spot price-gouging?

It's important to report price-gouging if you see it. You can report examples via our price-gouging tool, and read our guide to find out how to spot and report price-gouging direct to marketplaces. We're sharing all of the data collected through our tool with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which has set up a taskforce to deal specifically with consumer issues related to coronavirus.

If you spot inflated prices in shops in your area, you can also report these to your local Trading Standards team.

For online marketplaces, many have their own reporting tool that enables you to do so.

Amazon has added a 'report incorrect product information' tool on every product description.

On an eBay listing, you can click 'report item'. This can be found above the description box, on the right-hand side. On the 'file a report' page, you can select price-gouging in the report category. In the 'reason for report' field, select price-gouging, and then select an option in the 'detailed reason' field, and click 'send'.