By Gabriel Sandoval, Originally published in THE CITY on March 18
Rick Echevarría visited dozens of Brooklyn stores in recent days, asking owners to sign a pledge promising they wouldn’t price gouge during the coronavirus pandemic.
As he collected “about 40” signatures at delis, bodegas and 99-cent stores along Bushwick’s Broadway, Wyckoff and Knickerbocker avenues, he kept hearing similar stories: Suppliers had jacked up their prices on cleaning supplies — and shop owners were refusing to buy them.
The result: bare shelves and customers leaving stores empty-handed as many across the boroughs scrambled to buy essentials to curb the spread of COVID-19.
“The products must go back to these stores,” said Echevarría, a candidate for City Council’s District 37 seat, which covers parts of north Brooklyn, including Bushwick. “We can’t have the owners feeling like they can’t afford to restock.”
His one-man investigation came as the city this week announced a crackdown on businesses that price gouge.
“We are using every tool in our toolbox to protect New Yorkers from price gouging during this public health emergency and I encourage consumers to file a complaint if they are overcharged,” Lorelei Salas, commissioner of the city Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (DCWP), said in a statement Tuesday.
The agency announced an emergency rule making it illegal to increase prices by 10% or more on “any personal or household good or any service that is needed to prevent or limit the spread of or treat new coronavirus.” The rule is in effect for 60 days.
New Yorkers who believe they experienced price gouging should save their receipts and file a complaint by visiting nyc.gov/dcwp, or by calling 311 or DCWP at 1-800-697-1220, city officials said. When connected to an operator, mention the word “overcharge,” they said.
‘I Feel So Bad’
One frustrated Brooklyn store owner told THE CITY that prices were just so high on items, including hand sanitizer, disinfectant and Clorox bleach, that their shop couldn’t restock them.
“I feel so bad,” said the owner, who declined to provide their name out of fear of retribution from one of the suppliers. Echevarría said others had expressed fear of similar backlash.
THE CITY reviewed receipts collected by Echevarría and confirmed the price bump that store owners described. For example, Best Sale NYC, a Williamsburg-based supplier, charged $59.99 for a dozen bottles of 12.5 oz Lysol Disinfectant Spray on March 6, according to the receipt.
By Monday, the company charged $74.99, a 25% increase, for the same item.
When THE CITY called Best Sale NYC on Tuesday, the person who answered denied that the company had been price gouging.
“No such thing,” they said before hanging up.
On Monday, Echevarría visited Best Sale’s warehouse and confronted the supplier over the accusations from Bushwick store owners, many of them immigrants.
At the warehouse, a man who identified himself as the manager said his suppliers had raised their prices on Best Sale, which he then passed along to the stores he furnishes.
Echevarría asked to see the receipts.
“I cannot show you,” said the man in a video of their exchange posted on YouTube Tuesday. “How can I show you? I can tell you nicely, you know.”
‘Out of Your Mind’
On Tuesday, QNS reported that dollar stores in the Ridgewood and Glendale neighborhoods of Queens, which border Bushwick, weren’t restocking hand sanitizer due to supplier-side prices.
“If we get it for $5 and we sell it for $5.99, they’re going to blame us. They said, ‘It’s price gouging. I’m calling 311,’” the store manager of U2 99 Cent Store, Steven Ng, told QNS.
A DCWP spokesperson said that consumer protection law barring gouging applies broadly to businesses in New York City, including suppliers
“We are focusing our attention on brick-and-mortar retailers that are price gouging New Yorkers,” said Melissa Barosy, an agency spokesperson. ‘If those retailers demonstrate that they were only passing along exorbitant price increases from their suppliers, we will consider what our enforcement options may be on a case-by-case basis.”
At a City Hall news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said since Monday the consumer protection agency had issued 550 fines, costing businesses a total of $275,000.
“You got to be out of your mind to be price gouging in the middle of a pandemic,” de Blasio said.