The outbreak of the coronavirus outside China has triggered the sale of medical devices in Spain, where the demand for masks has increased by 10,000% compared to January last year, according to the latest data from the Federation of Pharmaceutical Distributors (Fedifar). This has made pharmacies run out of stock and that users turn to the Internet to get them. Some merchants who use Amazon to sell their products have taken advantage of the situation to increase the prices of masks and disinfectant gels, the most requested items. In response, the company is tracking its website “on an ongoing basis” identifying the merchants who put these oversized amounts.
“Commercial partners put their own prices in our store,” an Amazon spokesman tells EL PAÍS. But even so, they must conform to the fair price policy established by the company. “We are actively tracking our website and will withdraw offers that violate any of our policies.” This action is a response to the escalation of prices that have been observed in hygiene products in recent days due to increased demand. This Wednesday, the best selling in the health and personal care section of Amazon Spain was a hand sanitizer gel and several packs of disposable masks. Different types of these hygiene products, along with thermometers and antiseptic wipes, are in the top 20 of the most requested items by customers.
As a consequence, prices have increased. A package of 100 generic disposable masks went from 3.95 euros on Saturday to 149 euros on Tuesday, according to data from Keepa, a company that tracks prices on Amazon. The increase coincides with the detection of new cases of coronavirus in Spain, although this type of protection is not useful to prevent infection. This Wednesday had dropped to 35 euros. FFP2 protection masks, unlike disposable ones, prevent small particles in the air and are used more frequently to protect against virus transmission. The price of a pack of 5 has gone from costing 15 euros to 99 euros in just three days. The increase has coincided with the arrival of the coronavirus in Italy.
Variation of the price of disposable masks according to Keepa. Click on the photo to enlarge it.
Health authorities they are not recommending the use of masks and they emphasize much more effective measures, such as careful handwashing with soap and water.
More than half of the items available on Amazon are put up for sale through merchants who use the platform to sell their products. It is in these items sold by third parties where price escalations have been seen in recent days. To prevent these businesses from taking advantage of emergency situations, the company sets a fair price based on the amounts of those same products in previous weeks and even on what they cost on websites outside Amazon.
The giant is tracking its website to detect that the items conform to its policy and alert merchants when it is not. If these sellers keep increasing their prices, some of the consequences include the offer being withdrawn, suspending the shipping option, or, in case of recidivism, temporarily or permanently suspending the merchant’s selling privileges.
Buyers have complained about the high prices of supplies on Amazon on social networks. It has also been hotly debated among users in the company’s official sales forum during the past week. It is not the first time these complaints have occurred, it has also happened during other emergencies. When Hurricane Irma approached Florida in 2017, for example, the increase in bottled water prices caused a protest on-line. On that occasion, Amazon told USA Today that they were proceeding in the same way it does now: “We are actively monitoring our website and eliminating bottled water offers that substantially exceed the most recent average selling price.” It is a usual protocol in the company.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that the authorities of Italy, country that so far suffers the largest outbreak of the disease in Europe, had opened an investigation on prices on-line which they defined as “insane” for medical supplies, although not to mention any specific website.