On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States was announced, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver SUV to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.
Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”
Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga, preparing for pallets of even more wipes and sanitizer he had ordered, and starting to list them on Amazon. Colvin said he had posted 300 bottles of hand sanitizer and immediately sold them all for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher than what he had bought them for. To him, “it was crazy money.” To many others, it was profiteering from a pandemic. The next day, Amazon pulled his items and thousands of other listings for sanitizer, wipes and face masks. The company suspended some of the sellers behind the listings and warned many others that if they kept running up prices, they’d lose their accounts. EBay soon followed with even stricter measures, prohibiting any U.S. sales of masks or sanitizer.
Now, while millions of people search in vain for hand sanitizer, Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.
“It’s been a huge amount of whiplash,” he said. “From being in a situation where what I’ve got coming and going could potentially put my family in a really good place financially to ‘What the heck am I going to do with all of this?’ ”
Colvin is one of probably thousands of sellers who have amassed stockpiles of hand sanitizer and crucial respirator masks that many hospitals are now rationing, according to interviews with eight Amazon sellers and posts in private Facebook and Telegram groups from dozens more.
Amazon, eBay, Walmart and other online-commerce platforms are trying to stop their sellers from making excessive profits from a public health crisis. While the companies aimed to discourage people from hoarding such products and jacking up their prices, many sellers had already cleared out their local stores and started selling the goods online.
Now both the physical and digital shelves are nearly empty.
Colvin does not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees and about $10 in shipping. (Alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey to ship because officials consider it a hazardous material.)
But what about the morality of hoarding products that can prevent the spread of the virus, just to turn a profit?
Colvin said he was simply fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and he’s helping send the supply toward the demand.
He thought about it more.
“I honestly feel like it’s a public service,” he added. “I’m being paid for my public service.”
As for his stockpile, Colvin said he would now probably try to sell it locally.
“If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”
After the New York Times published this article Saturday morning, Colvin said he was exploring ways to donate all the supplies.