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Man undergoes investigation after stockpiling 17,700 bottles of sanitizer and wipes

7 months 1 week 3 days ago Monday, March 16 2020 Mar 16, 2020 March 16, 2020 2:56 PM March 16, 2020 in News
Source: The New York Times
Image via Doug Strickland for The New York Times

TENNESSEE-  After stockpiling 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and becoming a subject of national scorn, a Tennessee man donated all of the supplies on Sunday as the Tennessee attorney general's office began investigating him for price gouging amid the coronavirus pandemic.

March 1, the day following the first coronavirus death in the United States, Matt Colvin and his brother Noah cleaned the shelves of hand sanitizer at local stores in Chattanooga, Tenn. 

The brothers hit a Dollar Tree, Walmart, Staples, and a Home Depot buying all of the sanitizers, wiping the stores completely of the products.

In the three days following, the Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee into Kentucky where he filled a U-Haul truck full of thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes.

Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga waiting for the pallets full of hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes that he ordered online. He listed the products for sale on Amazon and immediately sold 300 units for between $8 and $70 each. 

Amazon pulled the listings from their site the next day along with thousands of other marked up listings for sanitizer, wipes, and face masks. The company warned sellers if they continue to run up prices for these items, their accounts would be suspended. EBay followed with even stricter measures, prohibiting any U.S. sales of sanitizer or masks.

With millions of people across the country searching for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin was sitting on 17,700 bottles of sanitizer and wipes before donating the supplies.

On Sunday morning, Matt Colvin loaded two-thirds of his stockpile into box trucks along with volunteers from a local church to distribute to people in need across Tennessee. Officials from Tennessee attorney general's office took the other third, which they plan to give their counterparts in Kentucky as some of the supplies were purchased there.

After The New York Times published an article about the brothers cleaning out stores in an attempt to profit off of the public's panic, the article immediately sparked widespread outrage. Many contacted the Colvins directly with hate mail and death threats, one person even showing up to their home with criticism.

Matt Colvin said the outpouring of hate has been scary for him and his family.

“It was never my intention to keep necessary medical supplies out of the hands of people who needed them,” he said, crying. “That’s not who I am as a person. And all I’ve been told for the last 48 hours is how much of that person I am.”

Matt Colvin is facing several consequences. He has made his living selling on Amazon and eBay, but is now suspended from the platforms. 

The Tennessee attorney general’s office sent him a cease-and-desist letter and opened an investigation.

“We will not tolerate price gouging in this time of exceptional need, and we will take aggressive action to stop it,” Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III of Tennessee said in a news release.

Tennessee’s price-gouging law prohibits charging “grossly excessive” prices for a variety of items, including food, gas and medical supplies, after the governor declares a state of emergency. The state can fine people up to $1,000 a violation.

The language of the law could benefit Matt Colvin. Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee declared a state of emergency on March 12, activating the price-gouging law. The Colvin brothers bought all of the sanitizer and wipes in question before that date, and Matt Colvin said he did not sell anything after it.

A spokeswoman for the Tennessee attorney general’s office said that even if the Colvin brothers did not buy or sell any of the supplies after March 12, state authorities “will weigh all options under consumer laws.”

Matt Colvin, 36, a former Air Force technical sergeant, said he started selling on Amazon in 2015, developing it into a six-figure career by selling Nike shoes and pet toys, and by following trends.

In early February, as headlines announced the coronavirus’s spread in China, Colvin spotted a chance to capitalize. A nearby liquidation firm was selling 2,000 “pandemic packs,” leftovers from a defunct company. Each came with 50 face masks, four small bottles of hand sanitizer and a thermometer. The price was $5 a pack. Colvin haggled it to $3.50 and bought them all.

He quickly sold all 2,000 of the 50-packs of masks on eBay, pricing them from $40 to $50 each, and sometimes higher. He declined to disclose his profit on the record but said it was substantial.

The success stoked his appetite. When he saw the panicked public starting to pounce on sanitizer and wipes, he and his brother set out to stock up.

In the first Times article, Matt Colvin said he did not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees and about $10 in shipping. (Alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey to ship because officials consider it a hazardous material.)

Current price-gouging laws “are not built for today’s day and age,” he said. “They’re built for Billy Bob’s gas station doubling the amount he charges for gas during a hurricane.”

He added, “Just because it cost me $2 in the store doesn’t mean it’s not going to cost me $16 to get it to your door.”

Colvin said he was fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and he’s helping send the supply toward the demand.

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