comscore Consumers complain that retailers are taking advantage of an emergency by raising prices for certain goods | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Consumers complain that retailers are taking advantage of an emergency by raising prices for certain goods

    Bottles of water are quickly disappearing off shelves, causing many people to line up for several hours Thursday to purchase water directly from the Menehune Water Co. in Halawa. A worker carried water to waiting customers.


The state Office of Consumer Protection has received more than 20 complaints of price gouging from consumers, most involving the sale of bottled water.

The state has placed a freeze on the price of consumer goods in Hawaii through at least Aug. 15 in an effort to prevent price gouging related to Tropical Storm Iselle and Hurricane Julio.

Bruce Kim, the Consumer Protection Office’s executive director, said Thursday that the freeze was put into effect with the emergency proclamation signed Wednesday by Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Residents stocking up on water and other essentials in anticipation of the storms have been voicing concern on social media sites about possible price gouging at local retailers.

Honolulu resident Nahoko Saito was among the angry customers posting her frustration on Facebook.

Her husband paid $48 for two 24-bottle cases of water, sold at the single-unit price of 99 cents at Walgreens.

Walgreens said it has not raised prices on products in Hawaii. If customers buy a large quantity of water bottles that are priced as singles, the cost is going to be significantly more, the company said.

"We’ve certainly seen increased demand for products such as bottled water," said Phil Caruso, Walgreens spokes­man.

"Some of our stores may be running low on our bulk items. If a customer were to buy an item sold at 99 cents, then they would pay the single-unit price. We’re certainly not raising our prices."

Retailers such as Longs Drugs, Foodland and Walmart said it is not their policy to raise prices in a crisis situation.

"The confusion may be coming from the fact that some customers are buying cases of water that we normally only sell as single bottles," said Foodland spokes­woman Sheryl Toda. "Since we don’t sell these items by the case, and therefore don’t have a case price for them in our system, the bottled water is being rung up as single items multiplied by the number of bottles in the box."

The unfair and deceptive acts and practices law allows the Office of Consumer Protection to impose fines and penalties ranging from $500 up to $10,000 per violation, Kim said.

The price caps apply to all commodities, he added.

"We are absolutely looking into it," Kim said. "The state is trying to make sure this weather situation is handled as best as possible. We will investigate any complaints that we receive. The state is overall interested in making sure it doesn’t happen and that merchants are aware of it, too."

Price gouging is defined as increases in the cost of vital consumer goods such as food, water, ice, gasoline, cooking fuel, batteries and generators.

There are exceptions under limited circumstances, including if a seller incurred additional operating expenses because of the disaster.

Kim said that if his investigators find any evidence of price gouging, his office will attempt to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.

If merchants have unknowingly raised prices during the state emergency, they may avoid a violation by rolling back prices and returning any excessive payments resulting from illegal price increases.

To report price gouging on Oahu, call 587-4272. Neighbor island residents can call the following numbers followed by 7-4272 and the # sign. Kauai, 274-3141; Maui, 984-2400; Hawaii island, 974-4000; and 800-468-4644 on Molo­kai and Lanai.

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