Discrepancies in face mask prices have prompted over 200 consumer complaints from angry New Zealanders this month.
It comes following new community cases of COVID-19 and the Government's recommendation that face coverings are worn when in public, causing demand for masks to surge.
Mark Hollingsworth, general manager of consumer protection at the Ministry of Innovation, Business and Employment (MBIE), said since August 11 - just before COVID-19 alert levels 3 and level 2 re-started - Price Watch received 210 complaints.
Complaints were about prices of individual and bulk masks charged at pharmacies and some retailers. For packs of 50 face masks, customers were charged anywhere from $1 up to $1.74 per mask.
"Of the complaints received about boxes of 50 masks, people have reported prices of between $50 and $87," Hollingsworth said.
Feedback from the pharmacy sector indicated prices were driven by supply costs. If a regular supplier was out-of-stock, masks were sought elsewhere. Urgent orders, including freight, cost more.
However, under the Fair Trading Act, retailers have a duty not to mislead customers or make false claims. Customers should expect prices to be transparent, including any increases.
"We encourage consumers to raise their concerns with their retailers, and for retailers to be transparent about pricing and work flexibly with their customers," Hollingsworth added.
Having recently launched a website selling disposable 'Bactive' 50-pack face masks for $34.99, Zuru Edge business development manager Josh Rippin said the price variance was "pretty crazy".
"We've sold 130,000 masks over the past week so there is real demand, for a fair price, within the communities," he said.
As different grades of face masks were available, this made like-for-like price comparisons more difficult. Although the Ministry of Health website says most people can wear non-medical grade face coverings, those wanting higher virus protection could check mask thickness, (single, double or 3-layer), against price.
"The thinner the mask - as is the case with the majority of cotton masks, logically, the less effective at filtering bacteria (BFE percent) and providing suffice breathability (differential pressure), therefore increasing the wearer’s probability of contracting an airborne disease," Rippin said.
Although Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will announce on Monday whether COVID-19 alert levels 3 and 2 are to stay or drop, the recommendation to wear face coverings is likely to be in-place for a while yet.
Shoppers concerned about retailer price gouging can register a complaint online at Price Watch.