Coronavirus: Law change could be needed to curb lockdown price-gouging - Consumer NZ

Consumer New Zealand is being inundated with complaints about supermarkets hiking up prices, despite the Government's denial such a thing is happening.

Supermarkets are among the few essential businesses allowed to continue operating while the country is at alert level 4.

But there have been reports that some stores are taking advantage of the lockdown situation, raising prices on many goods.

In response to the claims, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Monday the Government had set up a website for people to dob in any supermarkets they thought were guilty of the practice. 

"Our officials are in daily contact with our major supermarkets, and while we have found no evidence [of price-gouging] we are setting up a channel where people can report any cases or concerns that they may have," Ardern said.

Jessica Wilson, head of research at Consumer New Zealand, says an email address may not be enough to stop the problem, and that a law change could be required.

"It would send a clear message to traders that this behaviour won't be tolerated and indeed that they would stand to cop a substantial penalty if they did break the rules," Wilson told Newshub.

Currently shops can only be punished for misleading customers about the reason for a spike in prices, but not for the actual increase.

"Price-gouging per se isn't illegal," says Wilson. "What is illegal is to mislead consumers about the reason why prices have increased - and that would be a breach of the Fair Trading Act if any retailer did that."

Coronavirus: Law change could be needed to curb lockdown price-gouging - Consumer NZ

Anyone who believes their local supermarket is hiking prices without a reason is asked to email through and pictures of the prices or a copy of their receipt to the email address

Last week, there was uproar online after one New World store was found to have listed a fresh whole chicken for $30 - around double the normal price. Foodstuffs, New World's owner, later blamed the price on "human error", saying the item was incorrectly ticketed per kilogram instead of per chicken.

On Monday, Ardern dismissed the idea of allowing other stores to open to provide more competition for supermarkets.

She did, however, stress the importance that all businesses act responsibly. 

"No-one wants to see anyone take unfair financial advantage from this extraordinary period."

Consumer NZ is calling for more active measures to protect consumers.

"We really need some price monitoring to make sure that the prices consumers pay at the till are really fair prices," Wilson said.

The country's lockdown began on Thursday last week and will last for at least four weeks.

So far, there have been 589 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand, with one person losing their life as a result of the virus.

Globally, the number of confirmed cases have surpassed 745,000, with the death toll standing at over 35,000.