Years from now, do you suppose we’ll reminisce about the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020? The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic effect on the availability (in and some cases price) of things we ordinarily take for granted.
Usually the laws of supply and demand work pretty well. But these aren’t normal times, and many stores are limiting quantities of certain products to prevent hoarding that leaves some people unable to purchase necessities.
Our BBB team started receiving calls and emails about product pricing as soon as it became clear that the outbreak was going to affect us. Items like hand sanitizer, home cleaning products, and toilet paper were in short supply and the prices were going up.
This was before the state of emergency. When there is no state of emergency, businesses are free to set prices as they wish, the theory being that competition in the market will level out prices as people shop for better deals elsewhere. In these cases that retailers may also be paying higher wholesale costs for some products and passing on a fair and justified increase to their customers.
Price gouging (as a legal concept, at least) doesn’t apply unless government declares a state of emergency. As soon as that happens, as it did in Nova Scotia on March 22, the legislation governing pricing kicks in.
The Emergency Management Act says:
16(1) During a state of emergency or a state of local emergency, no person in the Province may charge higher prices for food, clothing, fuel, equipment, medical or other essential supplies or for the use of property, services, resources or equipment than the fair market value of the same thing immediately before the emergency.
(2) A contract that is contrary to subsection (1) is voidable at the option of the purchaser if the purchaser repudiates the contract within one month after the termination of the state of emergency or state of local emergency.
Note: this only covers “essential items.” Beyond the things mentioned in the Act, there isn’t a comprehensive list of products or services that are considered essential. Suffice it to say, however, that if you don’t need that product to live safely right now, it probably isn’t. Food, gasoline, and medications? Absolutely. A Netflix subscription? Probably not (despite how it may currently feel).
It does raise some interesting questions. Is Internet access essential? Many companies have shifted to remote employees. Lack of Internet access could lead to lost wages, so one might argue yes. What about hand sanitizer? It seems so, but science tells us that washing our hands properly and frequently with soap is highly effective. Even toilet tissue is an interesting consideration when, arguably, there are … alternatives. That said, I’m going to bet that most of us would consider it essential.
If you do see an instance of price gouging (a significantly higher price on an essential item) during the state of emergency, there are a few things you can do.
- Contact your local police (non-emergency), as it is a violation of the law,
- Contact the Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office,
- Report it to BBB AdTruth.
You can can always submit a complaint or a customer review with your local BBB. We’re working with businesses in our community to help them understand the importance of building trust in trying times, including fairness in their pricing, return and refund, and cancellation policies.