Amid virus outbreak, Minnesota AG Ellison says retailers are price gouging

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison says he's gotten dozens of calls from people who think they've gotten fleeced amid the coronavirus outbreak.

More than 150 people have called the attorney general's office to complain about price gouging, Ellison said.

"This is a global pandemic. Everybody I know is pretty anxious about it. I would hope nobody uses this as an opportunity to line their own pockets," Ellison said in an interview in his state Capitol office.

The price of toilet paper, surgical masks, bleach and rice are the most common complaints. Ellison said his office hasn't taken enforcement action against any retailer yet, but called it an "eventuality" as the virus crisis continues.

"I wouldn’t want to be the one to be made an example of," Ellison said. "It would not be good if you were the one in the news for price gouging. It wouldn’t be good for your brand. So please don’t force us into this situation."

Price gouging is the process of significantly marking up the prices of items in response to market changes, such as high demand during a disease outbreak.

Minnesota law doesn't specifically make it illegal. But the attorney general's office has the authority to go after retailers under other areas of state law, Ellison said.

A bill that's been introduced in the Minnesota House would explicitly outlaw price gouging, something at least 30 other states already have on the books. Lawmakers are on hiatus and have left St. Paul amid concerns about the virus.

FOX 9 has gotten daily emails from viewers upset about the price of household essentials in various parts of the state.

Jeremiah Kubiak emailed a photo of a 36-roll package of Scott toilet paper selling for $89.99 at a Hopkins hardware store.

"There was another gentleman next to me and he just kind of looked like it was a joke, why were they doing that?" Kubiak said in an interview.

The store's owner, Peter Hance, said he gets the question frequently from customers -- but said there's a simple explanation. The toilet paper is commercial grade and has significantly more sheets than a normal household roll, he said.

"My dad told me you’ll never get anywhere if you start cheating people. We would never ever do that," Hance said in an interview inside his store. "I know (the price) seems outrageous. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a much better deal than buying the smaller packs."

Grocery stores across the Twin Cities have run out of toilet paper as Minnesotans turn to hoarding it amid the crisis.

One shopper said he bought the $89.99 toilet paper after being unable to find it elsewhere.

"(The price) was high, but I've been looking for days," said Jesse Donat of Hopkins, as he held his purchase in his arms. "(Hance) explained that it is really expensive but then he had me lift it. You can feel that it is a ton of toilet paper."

Ellison and Gov. Tim Walz have discouraged Minnesotans from hoarding household essentials.

"We don’t have enough police to arrest people who buy too much darn toilet paper – but there’s some social pressure we can ask," Walz told reporters at a news conference this week.

"The problem is not that we can’t produce toilet paper. We can," Ellison said. "The problem is if everybody panics, we’ll have these massive shortages, and it won’t be a good thing."