The U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund report released Thursday analyzed prices of 750 “essential supplies” such as toilet paper, pulse oximeters and hand sanitizers sold over the online retail site from Dec. 1, 2019, through Dec. 1, 2020. U.S. Pig officials acknowledged price increases can be inevitable when demand spikes, but they said states should enact or enforce price-gouging laws, and the online retailer should take aggressive steps to protect consumers.
“ Amazon has done a lot to combat price gouging on their site,” said Grace Broach, a U.S. Pig Education Fund consumer watchdog associate who wrote the report. “We work hard to provide customers with low prices, vast selection and fast delivery,” the company spokesperson said.
The U.S. Pig report focused exclusively on Amazon because it's the largest online retailer and has vowed to combat price gouging, Broach said. Using data from the price-tracking tool Keep, the report compared prices on 50 listings in 15 categories “that people would consider essentials during the pandemic,” she said.
Consumers have been frustrated by periodic shortages of household staples such as toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer, and the report shows pricing varied widely in those categories. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency in March, forbidding monthly price increases of more than 10% on food, consumer goods and medical supplies.
Australia has been plunged into a supermarket shopping crisis thanks to fears of a coronavirus lockdown, with many stores across the country selling out of essential items such as toilet paper, pasta and tinned food. But while many shoppers have taken to social media to reveal alarming photos of their local Cole's, Woolworth's and Aldi stores’ bare shelves, others have reported that supermarkets in their area haven’t been affected by the panic.
‘Cole's and Woolworth's also tend to restock during the night so first thing in the morning is the best time to check stock.’ As for whether your local store has stock, shoppers suggest checking Cole's and Coolies’ websites for click and collect in your area.
Justin Oakes, director of emergency preparedness, H-E-B: Just a little of history: we have been working on our pandemic and influenza plan for quite a while now, since 2005, when we had the threat of H5N1 overseas in China. Craig Bryan, president, H-E-B: Justin leads our emergency preparedness with a group of folks, and that is a full-time, year-round position.
On January 15, Wuhan’s Municipal Health Commission announced that the novel coronavirus was spreading via human-to-human transmission. We decided to take a harder look at how to implement the plan we developed in 2009 into a tabletop exercise.
On February 2, we dusted it off and compared the plan we had versus what we were seeing in China, and started working on step one pretty heavily. Craig Bryan: Starting in January, we’ve been in close contact with several retailers and suppliers around the world.
Over the last couple of months, in close contact with some of our Italian retailers and suppliers, understanding how things have evolved in Italy and now in Spain, talking to those countries that are ahead of us in the curve. We’ve been in daily contact, understanding the pace and the change and the need for product, and how things have progressed in each of those countries.
Justin Oakes: We modeled what had been taking place in China from a transmission perspective, as well as impact. Craig Bryan: Chinese retailers have sent some pretty thorough information about what happened in the early days of the outbreak: how did that affect grocery and retail, how did that affect employees and how people were addressing sanitization and social distancing, how quarantine has affected the supply chain, how shopping behavior changed as the virus progressed, how did company work to serve communities with total lockdowns, and what action steps those businesses wish they had done early in the cycle to get ahead of it.
Justin Oakes: One of the biggest things we’ve looked at is what are the impacts to their employees? We’re very interested in what’s happening in the supply chain world, and the products that are being affected.
Over the next month, certain products started becoming scarce, and on March 14, H-E-B announced it would be reducing store hours to 8 a.m.–8 p.m. Justin Oakes: Going to eight-to-eight has been in our playbook all along, but I think what drove it for us was trying to ensure that we had enough product on our shelves to take care of our customers.
Tina James, chief people officer, H-E-B: have responded exceptionally well. I have been amazed and humbled by how positive their spirit is, and how great they feel to be serving our customers.
That said, it’s fairly exhausting work, and the volume has been so substantial that we’ve cut our hours back. Michael Leas, stock controller, store number 351, Edna: My overnight crew, they’re just coming in, and it seems like they’re ready.
There’s a great sense among H-E-B partners that they’re doing what’s needed to take care of Texans, and that keeps the morale very high. Tina James: For example, when we saw what was happening with the volume, we asked at corporate if people wanted to volunteer to take shifts in the stores and at the warehouses.
Stephanie Lowe, customer: I met Alma, who has been with H-E-B for 21 years, if I recall, and works in the store’s bookkeeping department. She had answered the “all hands on deck” call and was working checkout for the first time in years, and she was so excited.
She kept saying how much fun she was having being back at checkout and took great delight in looking up the codes to ring up produce. It was such a positive interaction in the midst of organized chaos, and I have thought about it throughout the week at work when things have been stressful.
Justin Oakes: We activated our Emergency Operations Center in San Antonio on March 4 . The driving factor behind that is when we see even a potential upswing in customer activity due to one of these events.
That’s almost every area of the company, so we’ve got a lot going on in our emergency operations center right now. Day Campos, director of government and public affairs, H-E-B: Even in the Etc right now, we’re practicing social distancing here.
Tina James: There’s so much product coming through the super-regional headquarters where the Etc is that we’re having two hot meals delivered every day, for the partners who work here. A map of Texas displaying H-E-B stores and COVID-19 cases at the Emergency Operations Center at the super-regional warehouse.
So our suppliers, where we’re getting paper towels from, our wipes, our hand sanitizer, are getting hit from all retailers, and we are seeing much higher levels of out-of-stock as a result. We’re working really hard to be creative in how we source product when the supply chain is under real pressure.
In early March, retailers around the country started seeing shortages of common household products, and H-E-B began limiting quantities that customers could purchase on a single trip. I think people were sending the masks back home to their families, and it started exponentially increasing at that point, particularly around cleaning supplies, disinfectant, things of that nature.
Michael Leas: When we get to work, it’s been empty in the stores, certain sections, like the paper aisle, water, just a bunch of stuff. Craig Bryan: We have a number of Texas companies that are pitching in and doing great work.
So we have been partnering with Laban to deliver rotisserie chickens, deli lunch meats, and a variety of products. Blair Laban, president, Laban Food Service: We just sort of bolted onto H-E-B’s need in the conventional grocery supply with our trucks and drivers, because obviously our core restaurant business is very adversely affected by the crisis, so it’s really worked out well for us.
Craig Bryan: We’re partnering with the beer distributors in Texas, for the first time ever, to deliver eggs to our stores. Craig Bryan: We’ve been working very hard right now to deliver meat and poultry and eggs to our stores.
means fewer changeover delays, and it allows us to ship significantly more meat. The Helen store was considerably better stocked, but South lake is still better compared to the Targets and Rogers and Tom Thumbs I’ve been to.
We’ve been having conversations about how this equates to Harvey, and although the need is very similar … there is not really a clear end in sight on when we think we will be out of this. On a twice-daily basis, we’re monitoring trends in Europe and China, so we can forecast an estimate on when we think we’ll be out of this.
Craig Bryan: We’ve had several spikes, but one of the most significant was , when we saw a second furious wave of buying. I don’t know if it was the announcement that the NBA had shut, or one of the presidential news conferences, or Tom Hanks, but we saw a major spike that day.
Justin Oakes: I would say rural and urban stores are very consistent, as far as the increase. Jessica Elizarraras, customer and bride: Our wedding was supposed to take place on April 5, it didn’t make sense for us to try and have this party.
By Saturday, we didn’t feel comfortable running around San Antonio finding flowers. Andy Hopper called us on Sunday morning, went to the wholesaler, found a few goodies and whipped up this amazing bouquet.
A bride needs a bouquet and I ended up with a gorgeous one because they cared enough to make it happen, COVID-19 or not. The way we focus on pushing our business is to try to adapt as quickly as humanly possible, as we talk about the daily adjusting of our supply chain and our store operations.
When we started seeing the N95 masks and the sanitizers, we took that as a good sign that our customers were concerned about what was going on, and that’s what really spurred us to activate our program. As we continue to maneuver our supply chain and support our stores during COVID-19, we’ll bring some lessons learned and tools out of that into hurricane season.
So we play a unique role in our partners’ lives that allows them to have some comfort and calm, so they can turn around and take care of our customers. Craig Bryan: The spirit of Texans and their treating H-E-B partners with the respect and pride that they do makes us feel fantastic.
I drove by a church the other day in San Antonio that had a sign out front that said ‘Thank an H-E-B checker.” We’ve seen an outpouring of support for our partners and truck drivers that gives us a great sense of pride.