Is It Immoral to Increase the Price of Goods During a Crisis?

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In “He Has 17,700 Bottles of Hand Sanitizer and Nowhere to Sell Them,” Jack Nicas writes:

On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States was announced, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver S.U.V. to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.

Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”

The Colvin brothers saw a golden business opportunity. Demand for hand sanitizer was exceptionally high, while supply was limited and falling fast. Economics 101: If they played their cards right, they could make a huge profit by buying low and selling high.

Is that an example of capitalism at its finest? A fast path to the American dream? Or, is it immoral and selfish?

The article continues:

Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga, preparing for pallets of even more wipes and sanitizer he had ordered, and starting to list them on Amazon. Mr. Colvin said he had posted 300 bottles of hand sanitizer and immediately sold them all for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher than what he had bought them for. To him, “it was crazy money.” To many others, it was profiteering from a pandemic.

The next day, Amazon pulled his items and thousands of other listings for sanitizer, wipes and face masks. The company suspended some of the sellers behind the listings and warned many others that if they kept running up prices, they’d lose their accounts. eBay soon followed with even stricter measures, prohibiting any U.S. sales of masks or sanitizer.

Now, while millions of people across the country search in vain for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.

Mr. Nicas writes:

Mr. Colvin is one of probably thousands of sellers who have amassed stockpiles of hand sanitizer and crucial respirator masks that many hospitals are now rationing, according to interviews with eight Amazon sellers and posts in private Facebook and Telegram groups from dozens more. Amazon said it had recently removed hundreds of thousands of listings and suspended thousands of sellers’ accounts for price gouging related to the coronavirus.

Amazon, eBay, Walmart and other online-commerce platforms are trying to stop their sellers from making excessive profits from a public health crisis. While the companies aimed to discourage people from hoarding such products and jacking up their prices, many sellers had already cleared out their local stores and started selling the goods online.

Now both the physical and digital shelves are nearly empty.

Mikeala Kozlowski, a nurse in Dudley, Mass., has been searching for hand sanitizer since before she gave birth to her first child, Nora, on March 5. When she searched stores, which were sold out, she skipped getting gas to avoid handling the pump. And when she checked Amazon, she couldn’t find it for less than $50.

“You’re being selfish, hoarding resources for your own personal gain,” she said of the sellers.

The article also explains how the practice of selling goods online to make a profit is nothing new:

These sellers call it retail arbitrage, a 21st-century career that has adults buying up everything from limited-run cereals to Fingerling Monkeys, a once hot toy. The bargain hunters look for anything they can sell at a sharp markup. In recent weeks, they found perhaps their biggest opportunity: a pandemic.

As they watched the list of Amazon’s most popular searches crowd with terms like “Purell,” “N95 mask” and “Clorox wipes,” sellers said, they did what they had learned to do: Suck up supply and sell it for what the market would bear.

Initially, the strategy worked. For several weeks, prices soared for some of the top results to searches for sanitizer, masks and wipes on Amazon, according to a New York Times analysis of historical prices from Jungle Scout, which tracks data for Amazon sellers. The data shows that both Amazon and third-party sellers like Mr. Colvin increased their prices, which then mostly dropped when Amazon took action against price gouging this month.

It continues:

…. Mr. Colvin, 36, a former Air Force technical sergeant, said he started selling on Amazon in 2015, developing it into a six-figure career by selling Nike shoes and pet toys, and by following trends.

In early February, as headlines announced the coronavirus’s spread in China, Mr. Colvin spotted a chance to capitalize. A nearby liquidation firm was selling 2,000 “pandemic packs,” leftovers from a defunct company. Each came with 50 face masks, four small bottles of hand sanitizer and a thermometer. The price was $5 a pack. Mr. Colvin haggled it to $3.50 and bought them all.

Mr. Nicas concludes:

Mr. Colvin does not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees and about $10 in shipping. (Alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey to ship because officials consider it a hazardous material.)

Current price-gouging laws “are not built for today’s day and age,” Mr. Colvin said. “They’re built for Billy Bob’s gas station doubling the amount he charges for gas during a hurricane.”

He added, “Just because it cost me $2 in the store doesn’t mean it’s not going to cost me $16 to get it to your door.”

But what about the morality of hoarding products that can prevent the spread of the virus, just to turn a profit?

Mr. Colvin said he was simply fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and he’s helping send the supply toward the demand.

“There’s a crushing overwhelming demand in certain cities right now,” he said. “The Dollar General in the middle of nowhere outside of Lexington, Ky., doesn’t have that.”

He thought about it more. “I honestly feel like it’s a public service,” he added. “I’m being paid for my public service.”

As for his stockpile, Mr. Colvin said he would now probably try to sell it locally. “If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”

After The Times published this article on Saturday morning, Mr. Colvin said he was exploring ways to donate all the supplies.

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Does high demand for items like hand sanitizer and masks during a public health crisis justify higher prices? Are resellers who stockpile supplies and then sell them at a higher price providing a service? Or, are they taking advantage of people? Do you think what Mr. Colvin did is immoral?

  • How much responsibility do online retailers like Amazon and eBay have to prevent price gouging during a crisis? Do you think these companies did the right thing in restricting sales of any coronavirus-related products from certain sellers?

  • How much responsibility do retailers in general have to prevent stockpiling? Should they place limits on how many items, like hand sanitizer, a person can buy?

  • What do you think Mr. Colvin should have done with all the supplies he stockpiled? Should he be punished by the state of Tennessee?


Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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