As if the current climate during the Covid-19 pandemic isn’t distressing enough, being overcharged for essentials adds a distinct insult to injury for Jersey City residents. In a few local stores, items like isopropyl alcohol, hand sanitizer and disinfectant cleaners are suddenly three to four times their usual price, as reported by consumers in the area. This is a practice widely considered to be unethical and exploitative.
Price gouging isn’t new in times of crisis — merchants have been doing it for ages. But it is against the law. In light of this, and in response to numerous reports of the activity received over the past few days, Jersey City is dispensing its new Quality of Life Task Force (a division of the police department) to log consumers’ citings and contact any local businesses that may be overcharging for items such as isopropyl alcohol, sanitizer, and spray cleaners for which the demand may be higher than the supply. Based on over a dozen calls recently made to the mayor’s office and the police department, the task force has been making the rounds all over the city and issuing summonses when called for.
Today in the Heights, special agents strolled into various 99-cent-style shops inquiring about items that were said to be far above their normal retail price. For example, a regular size (16 oz.) bottle of rubbing alcohol costs $2.50 – $2.99 at most drugstores, but at many dollar stores around Jersey City such items were priced at $5.99 – $8.99. Store managers and clerks explained that this wasn’t necessarily their fault as suppliers had raised their prices of these items, forcing them (the stores) to hike retail prices proportionally in order to maintain their profit margins. But the current state statute prohibits retailers from increasing their own (retail) prices more than 10% compared to what products cost consumers immediately prior to a formal state of emergency.
Today’s inspections weren’t as dramatic as the one carried out at a dollar store on Newark Avenue yesterday. In that case, nine summonses were issued with a total potential fine of $90,000 ($10,000 for each summons.) Chief Jersey City Prosecutor Jake Hudnut, who headed up both days’ inspections, explained the difference: “We went to four stores today. None had prices as high as yesterday. Many had increased [prices] but also [had] documentation that their suppliers raised costs. That was absent yesterday. So we informed them that they could only go above 10% above the supplier’s increased costs. All the stores promised to change their prices. We will follow up. One store in Journal Square even changed their price board right in front of the officers.”
At the very least, store owners and managers are getting the message and will certainly be taken to task by the agents assigned to protect our community from illegal and unethical activity.
If you suspect price gouging in your neighborhood, please report the matter to the Jersey City Police Department at 201-547-5477 or to the NJ Consumer Affairs Department at 800-242-5846.
Header: Quality of Life Task Force, photo by Jayne Freeman