Attorney general's office finds no evidence of price gouging
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul's office has received more than 1,120 price-gouging complaints since the start of the coronavirus outbreak.
However, investigators found no accusations of unlawful price increases required any type of "enforcement action," said Annie Thompson, a spokeswoman for Raoul.
"We do take a number of things into account when we contact these businesses," Thompson said. "Not every complaint about unfair pricing is indicative of an unlawful price increase."
Thompson said many items have seen modest price increases because of increased costs of supplying the products, increased overhead and the cost of new safety features.
Thompson said items like bleach, sanitizing sprays, meats, milk, eggs and toilet paper have generated the most complaints.
Illinois Retail Merchants Association President and CEO Rob Karr said many consumers don't understand that some grocery store staples are going to be slightly more expensive than they were before the outbreak and prices will differ from one store to the next because of supply chain costs.
"I don't think consumers understand what is price gouging," he said. "They have no idea what one store's supplier and employee costs are compared to another store."
He added that outside of "a couple social media posts" about Chicago convenience stores, he hasn't seen any evidence of price gouging.
"And I don't know how much I trust what I see on social media," Karr said.
When complaints are lodged, attorneys from Raoul's consumer protection division contact the businesses to investigate.
"They've been cooperative about explaining their pricing," Thompson said. "There may be a pretty big increase on occasion, but these are really unique circumstances."
The investigating attorney often follows up with suppliers to "make sure" the businesses' explanations for price hikes make sense, Thompson said. Complaints can be filed online at the illinoisattorneygeneral.gov.
Karr said he's tried to communicate with his membership the importance of explaining any inconsistencies in pricing. Meanwhile, some larger chains, like Walgreens, have ordered companywide price freezes so consumers won't be confused and to reduce the chance the company will be accused of price gouging.
"Walgreens has taken specific steps from the outset to carefully manage pricing during the crisis," a Walgreens spokesman said in a news release. "We implemented a chain-wide freeze on price increases on key product categories that have been in higher demand since early March, at the very outset of the pandemic."
Thompson said online price gouging has been more prevalent. Raoul recently signed onto a letter with 32 other states' attorneys general that was sent to online retailers like Amazon, Facebook, eBay and others urging them to better monitor their sites.
Consumers have been smart about not falling for unfair price hikes online, they said. Karr said he recently heard from a retailer who reported someone had bought dozens of rolls of toilet paper before limits were placed on the products, then returned them to the store because they weren't fetching inflated prices as hoped.
And Thompson said consumers should remain vigilant.
"We always encourage people to contact our office about potentially fraudulent or unfair business practices," she said.