July 8, 2020

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Manitobans file 25 complaints of pandemic price gouging

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Manitoba's consumer protection office has received 25 complaints of price gouging since the onset of COVID-19, although none has so far resulted in a fine against a retailer.

Most of the complaints have centred around the cost of masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper and food items.

The CPO said seven of the 25 complaints are still under investigation.

The office, which declined repeated requests for an interview, said through a provincial spokeswoman that it has received another 75 queries about product pricing during the pandemic.

"We follow up on all information we receive, which includes contacting the businesses involved to help resolve the issue, if required," the spokeswoman said.

"The story was that corner stores were gouging." – ICYA executive director Kent Dueck

The government said it does not provide specifics about complaints or identify businesses unless cases go to court. Under provincial legislation, fines are only assessed if a business is legally convicted.

The number of price-gouging complaints received in Manitoba is small compared to British Columbia, where consumer protection officials received more than 2,000 complaints between March 1 and May 14, according to a recent CTV report. Of the 2,065 complaints received, 357 led to investigations. All were launched after that province introduced a $2,000 fine for businesses exploiting the crisis in mid-April. The report noted that no fines had so far been levied.

Manitoba has no comparative data for previous years because the CPO did not previously keep statistics on reports of price gouging.

When North End corner stores started jacking up the price of toilet paper by as much as $12 for six rolls in March, the non-profit group, Inner City Youth Alive (ICYA) began purchasing the product at other places and re-selling it at cost to local residents.

"The story was that corner stores were gouging," said Kent Dueck, ICYA's executive director.

A lot of low-income seniors were among those who ventured to the organization's headquarters at Aberdeen Avenue and Salter Street to obtain the hard-to-get product.

"I know there was a woman fighting cancer and she could hardly get out. And so we were a bit of a life line," said Dueck, who heard stories of folks travelling as far as Scanterbury to buy TP.

Prices for products such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, toilet paper and other goods rose temporarily in big stores as wholesalers and retailers responded to shortages.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / FREE PRESS FILES

Prices for products such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, toilet paper and other goods rose temporarily in big stores as wholesalers and retailers responded to shortages.

Dueck said ICYA distributed toilet paper through a take-out window at its offices for two-and-a-half months, ending the service about three weeks ago after supplies and prices returned to more normal levels.

He said a number of storeowners who jacked up prices likely did so after weighing the likelihood that they would face legal consequences. If they believed it to be low, they may have thought it was a risk worth taking.

John Graham, director of government relations, Prairie region, for the Retail Council of Canada, said the problem occurred in small stores in March and early April.

"They were selling things at prices that were substantially higher than consumers would see in other stores," he said.

However, word soon got out and governments across the country issued warnings against gouging that "really tamped that down," Graham said.

"You've got some Manitobans with a basement worth of toilet paper that they'll take years to get through out of irrational buying." – Retail Council of Canada John Graham

He noted that prices for products such as hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, toilet paper and other goods also rose temporarily in big stores as wholesalers and retailers responded to shortages.

"Wholesale prices rose as global demand was going after the same limited supply," Graham said. "And so production adjusted and there was more supply, costs fell ..."

Meanwhile, some consumers who panicked and overbought some products might be wishing they had been a little more patient.

"You've got some Manitobans with a basement worth of toilet paper that they'll take years to get through out of irrational buying," Graham said.

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Larry Kusch

Larry Kusch
Legislature Reporter

Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Read full biography

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