SUPPLIERS and retailers are being warned not to seek to profit from the coronavirus outbreak and urged to act responsibly as the situation continues.
This follows reports about some companies, including one in Ormskirk, setting excessively-high prices for protective items such as face masks, as well as other sanitisation and safety goods.
Lancashire County Council's Trading Standards team is working closely with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to monitor the situation and take action to address consumer protection issues.
Suppliers are free to set their own reasonable prices for personal protective equipment and other items. However, there has been increasing evidence of blatant profiteering.
In some cases, the goods have proved to be faulty and totally ineffective, in others vastly overpriced.
Examples of complaints have included sanitiser in Ormskirk sold at five times the usual price, meat doubled in price in East Lancashire, and baby milk doubled in price in Leyland. One local pharmacist in Poulton-le-Fylde complained of a hike in prices of over 200% on his usual supply of protective face masks.
Trading Standards and the CMA will consider any evidence that companies may have broken competition or consumer protection law, for example by charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about the effectiveness of protective equipment.
Traders are advised that such action could also constitute an 'aggressive practice' under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. That is because at a time of national crisis, subjecting consumers to significant and unjustified price increases on basic commodities or safety and medical supplies may well amount to "undue influence”.
The council and CMA say they will take direct enforcement action against companies if needed.
Dr Andrea Coscelli, CMA chief executive, said: “We urge retailers to behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices.
"We also remind members of the public that these obligations may apply to them too if they resell goods, for example on online marketplaces.”
County Councillor Albert Atkinson, cabinet member for technical services, rural affairs and waste management, said: "The Trading Standards Service has received 13 complaints already about traders increasing their prices for food products.
"In general, there seems to be no good reason for this, other than taking an opportunity to profit from an emergency situation.
"This is very disappointing and we are working closely with the CMA to tackle the issue. We will use our powers to take enforcement action if needed.
"We're urging people to shop with retailers who charge fair market prices and don't seek to profiteer.
"Whilst the situation is continuing and consumers may believe goods are in short supply, I reiterate the national message that people should make sensible purchases and not panic-buy.
"This will ensure that the food supply chain is maintained and the right levels of goods are available in our shops across Lancashire."
Consumers with complaints about misleading practices and scams can report these to Trading Standards via the Citizen's Advice Consumer Service on 0808 223 1133
Or report online at https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/consumer/get-more-help/report-to-trading-standards/
(Photos – Dr Andrea Coscelli( left) and County Councillor Albert Atkinson.)