August 12, 2020

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Lure of hand sanitizer, face masks draws lineup

Saranjit Dhaliwal, Misercordia staff, shows the hand sanitizer and N95 masks she bought at Showcase at Polo Park mall in Winnipeg on April 1, 2020.  (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Saranjit Dhaliwal, Misercordia staff, shows the hand sanitizer and N95 masks she bought at Showcase at Polo Park mall in Winnipeg on April 1, 2020. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

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More than a dozen people waited in line outside Polo Park shopping centre for nearly an hour Wednesday, for the opportunity to get their own stash of face masks and hand sanitizer from a private retailer.

Showcase has pivoted from selling infomercial products, such as Sharper Image blankets and Dr. Ho's brand massagers, to stocking pricey "coronavirus supplies" online and in its more than 100 stores during the global pandemic.

Samir Kulkarni, Showcase chief executive officer, said the decision to sell sanitizer and masks, including N95 respirators recommended for use in health-care facilities, was a public service.

"There’s a worldwide shortage of these goods," Kulkarni told the Free Press over the phone. "If we and other Canadian retailers don’t step up and do their part, we may not get our fair share of essential supplies in Canada."

When asked who is deserving of such essential supplies, Kulkarni said it depends on the product. Showcase is making hand sanitizer available to anyone who wants a bottle, while masks are being limited to first responders, health-care workers and seniors.

However, there’s nothing stopping someone from falsely identifying as a front-line worker in-store or online.

"We are asking customers to confirm that they are, in fact, part of that essential service group," Kulkarni said. "We are counting on the honesty and trust of Canadians."

During Wednesday’s provincial news briefing, Manitoba chief public health officer Dr. Brent Roussin advised the public against buying face masks for personal use.

"Personal protective equipment needs to be in the place that it is most important and that's in the hands of health-care workers," Roussin said. "There's really no use for the general public to be using masks."

Winnipeg shoppers were invited via email to visit Showcase’s Polo Park location between noon and 5 p.m. Wednesday to purchase a maximum of five sanitizer bottles and five masks per customer. The first 30 minutes of the sales day was reserved for first responders, hospital workers, government employees, and seniors; the remainder was intended for anyone working outside their home.

Some lined up outside the mall were buying supplies for the workplace, others were shopping for personal use.

"I’m trying to protect myself," said Anne Davies, a 79-year-old who lives in an apartment building with 150 suites.

Seniors and front-line workers line up to buy hand sanitizer and N95 masks at Showcase at Polo Park mall in Winnipeg on April 1, 2020. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Seniors and front-line workers line up to buy hand sanitizer and N95 masks at Showcase at Polo Park mall in Winnipeg on April 1, 2020. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I go out everyday, at least four times a day with my dog, and I need to have something protecting me when I pass people in the hallways, because sometimes they don’t keep their distance."

Mother-daughter pair Leilane and Libertine Espinosa had hopes of buying masks and hand sanitizer — items they’ve had a hard time finding locally.

"We go everywhere — Walmart, Superstore, Safeway, and there’s nothing," said Leilane.

Libertine, who was wearing a face mask while she waited, works in a daycare centre and has been buying her own protective gear to wear on the job.

"The other people are out and about and you don’t know where they’ve been, so I want to make sure that I’m safe," she said. "You just feel safer, you know you’re doing something to protect yourself when you feel helpless."

The slow-moving line also included a physiotherapist, flight paramedic, and Child and Family Services employee picking up items to use at work.

On Wednesday, Showcase was only allowing five customers in the store at a time. After nearly an hour of waiting, Saranjit Dhaliwal, who works with seniors at the Misericordia Health Centre, emerged from the mall with a small box and a larger bill than she had expected.

"I spent a lot of money," Dhaliwal said. "It was like $160 for five bottles (of hand sanitizer) and like $30 for these (masks)."

Showcase’s online store has sanitizer ranging in price from $3.99 for a small bottle to $29.99 for a 946-millilitre vessel. Single surgical face masks are available for $1.69; N95 respirators start at $9.99 for one or $199.99 for 20.

Kulkarni was adamant his Brampton, Ont.,-based company is not trying to profit off the market demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We are not price-gouging and, in fact we, are losing money every day that we are open," he said. "The products we sell and the prices we charge don’t even cover the cost of the inventory, the air freight, the wages, the mall rent."

Kulkarni said Showcase has also been selling bulk orders to governments and health institutions in Canada, but didn't provide specifics.

eva.wasney@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @evawasney

Eva Wasney

Eva Wasney
Arts Reporter

Eva Wasney is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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