National

Hoarding and price-gouging send mask prices soaring in Japan amid virus fear

Kyodo

As the supply of surgical masks runs low in stores amid growing fears of the new coronavirus from China, some have attempted to profit from the situation by reselling them online at far higher than retail prices.

Manufacturers are running at full throttle to produce enough masks to meet snowballing demand, but many consumers have been unable to find them in drugstores or convenience stores, which normally have a variety in stock ahead of the hay fever season.

A pharmacy near Shimbashi Station in central Tokyo posted a warning that it would sell each customer or group no more than two bags of masks, a measure intended to prevent people from buying large quantities and reselling them for profit.

Anticipating the sharp rise in demand, the store had increased its inventory considerably only to find supplies were still running quite low.

“Sometimes we cannot receive shipments at all,” a female employee at the store said.

A woman in her 20s visited another pharmacy and found that surgical masks were scarce there as well. Noting that she was concerned about the potential spread of the pneumonia-causing illness, she said, “I really want people not to buy them for the purpose of resale.”

According to flea market app operator Mercari Inc., many masks are being sold at rates much higher than retail prices.

One user listed two bags of seven surgical masks for ¥99,999, although the retail price is just ¥405 per bag.

Mercari has asked users to stay within an appropriate price range, and consumer affairs bodies across the country have received complaints about price-gouging during a time of elevated concern.

Akiko Ito, head of the Consumer Affairs Agency, told a news conference on Wednesday that purchasing surgical masks for the purpose of resale is undesirable, while urging consumers to act calmly.

The agency plans to work together with other government bodies such as the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry to stabilize mask prices.

The agency will also ask for cooperation from online market operators to address the concern.

San-M Package Co., a leading manufacturer of surgical masks including those used by doctors, said the volume of the incoming orders has made them difficult to fill despite its factory running around the clock.

An official at the All Nippon Nonwovens Association said, “We heard that materials for making surgical masks are running short.”

Amid the shortage, the idea of homemade alternatives has drawn attention on social media.

A post on one woman’s website shows how to make a mask from gauze.

“I heard that people with hay fever or other illnesses are also having trouble buying surgical masks,” she said.

“I want people to know there are alternatives for making surgical masks. It’s easy to make even for beginners.”

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