A case of water for $25?
Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s administration is threatening to fine store owners if they price gouge people who are trying to stock up on water and other supplies in preparation for Hurricanes Iselle and Julio.
“The Office of Consumer Protection will investigate complaints and prosecute any offenders to the fullest extent of the law,” said Bruce Kim, executive director of the state Office of Consumer Protection, in a news release Thursday just before Iselle made landfall on Big Island.
In conjunction with the governor’s disaster declaration, issued Wednesday, prices are capped at pre-emergency levels for all commodities, including food, water, ice, gasoline, cooking fuel, batteries and generators, Kim said.
The cap is effective through at least Aug. 16, he said, noting that merchants found in violation may be subject to severe fines and penalties.
Social media outlets were abuzz Thursday with reports of grocery stores selling cases of water for up to $25 as supplies dwindled across the state.
In some instances, the people complaining were apparently unfamiliar with the cost of a case of water and how much it varies by brand — regardless of any impending storm.
There were photos circulating online that showed cases of 12 bottles of Smart Water being sold at Safeway for $17.99 and boxes of 35 bottles of Mountain Fresh for the same price at Palama Supermarket.
People slammed both stores for jacking up the cost, saying they’d rather drink the water out of their bath tub.
While not as cheap as the cases of 32 bottles of Aquafina that were being sold at Walmart for under $5, the prices for the Mountain Fresh and Smart Water were not higher than usual.
Smart Water is just an expensive brand. In the case of Palama Supermarket, management said they ordered the Mountain Fresh for $11 a case plus pick-up costs, the cheapest water they could find on short notice.
“We were not and will never take advantage of our customers by price gouging whether there is an emergency or not,” Palama management posted on the store’s Facebook page Thursday morning.
“We realized that water was short and this was the only option we could find. We thought that customers would be happy that we could offer something when there is nothing.”
Palama gave away free bottles of water to every customer that wanted one Thursday until supplies ran out.
People have posted ads to sell water on Craigslist and Facebook, ranging from considerate to opportunistic. Some who had extra were offering it for free, others were demanding $10 per bottle.
If merchants have unknowingly raised prices during this period, the OCP says they may avoid a violation by rolling back prices to the appropriate level and putting a restitution program in place to return any excessive payments resulting from the illegal price increases to consumers.
If consumers believe they paid increased prices for merchandise, the OCP advises them to keep their receipts and report any instances of price gouging by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The reports should include: name of business; location of business – island, area; what was being purchased, any additional info on the item; name and contact number of caller if they are willing.
The office had received about 20 calls regarding complaints of price gouging by Thursday evening, according to a state official.
During normal work hours, the OCP says consumers can call the state Consumer Resource Center between 7:45 a.m. and 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 587-4272 or 587-3295 from Oahu, or from the Neighbor Islands call the following numbers followed by 7-4272 and the # sign: Kauai, 274-3141; Maui, 984-2400; Hawaii, 974-4000; Lanai/Molokai, 1-800-468-4644 (toll free).
An electronic copy of OCP’s complaint is available at http://cca.hawaii.gov/ocp.