Human beings are fairly predictable, so by the time the coronavirus pandemic had taken hold on the world people had already begun to exploit the crisis.
Hundreds of thousands of reports of price gouging and profiteering have been reported worldwide, affecting essential products like PPE and medical supplies as well as groceries like pasta, milk and toilet paper. On online marketplaces, such as eBay or Amazon, such items – and others including hand sanitiser, soap and disinfectant wipes – have been seen advertised at exorbitant prices.
The danger of price gouging is not only that it exploits people who feel they have no other choice than to fork out ridiculous amounts for goods – it also limits the availability of such goods, leaving them languishing in storage or redirecting them to business-to-consumer distributors rather than to state services that need them. In the UK, there have been reported shortages of PPE such as masks, gowns and eye protection among NHS facilities, as well as empty shelves of cleaning products in supermarkets.
One group attempting to tackle this issue is the founders of MaskBros: Greg Cox, Frederick Filz von Reiterdank, and Cogan Wade. The company is an offshoot of Students Against Corona, a volunteering initiative that connects university students around the world with the most vulnerable in their community to provide food parcels, errand services and medical supplies. The first ‘hub’ was established in Oxford but now has volunteers from student communities in half a dozen countries. While working for SAC, Frederick had set out to source PPE for volunteers but realised that the steep mark-up added between manufacturers and retailers was making the products inaccessible. Together, the friends from St. Andrews University created a company that could sell masks at cost, making the equipment affordable for those who need it. Mask Bros has been in business for just over a week, and have already sold over 130,000 masks and respirators.
Speaking to Greg on the phone, he pointed out that difference in price between the cost and some of the prices they had been seeing online was astonishingly high – masks that should have cost a matter of pence were going for as much as £1.50 per mask. The first step, he explained, was finding manufacturers: “Freddie’s got some contacts with suppliers in China and Hongkong, so we were able to speak with them and get masks at…25p, 26p, 27p…we were able to get masks at those prices in small quantities so we decided to set up the initiative and provide those masks, and the FFP2 respirators…at cost price.”
After establishing a reliable supply, with products that met the guidelines for non-medical equipment and could be bought at cost, the founders set up an online shop to cut out the middle-man and provide PPE direct to consumers. Approximately 90% of their sales so far have been to individuals, looking for masks to use while shopping, exercising, or caring for relatives who are sick. Next steps, Greg explained, include increasing unit sizes to sell to small businesses who will be looking to reopen once restrictions are lifted. They are also keen to increase the number of products they have available. The company recently moved from distributing the product from the founders’ shared student flat to working with a fulfilment centre, which will enable them to look at providing other products such as hand sanitiser.
We only currently provide non-medical equipment…we don’t want to cannibalise the [NHS’] supply and that was something we were quite conscious of at the start.
– Greg Cox
An immediate concern for the founders was potentially depriving services like the NHS of the PPE they desperately need, at a time when the medical grade required by equipment used in hospitals has limited the availability of supplies. “We only currently provide non-medical equipment”, Greg stated, “we don’t want to cannibalise the [NHS’] supply and that was something we were quite conscious of at the start. But it might be something we might move into…a few care homes have reached out to us and we’ve had to say that we don’t have the equipment [they] require at the moment.” Non-hospital care facilities are still required to use top-grade protective equipment, and care staff across the UK have seen major issues with acquiring supplies of the appropriate grade or strength. Providing medical-grade products – the legal standard in most homes and hospices – could put the power back into the hands of individual facilities and ensure they can appropriately provide for their staff.
Mask Bros is clear that they aren’t a non-profit, but that the only mark-up they are currently making is in shipping costs – all of which is being redirected into the business to cover website, advertising and promotional costs. The company is keen to reintroduce some trust into a marketplace that has been saturated with faceless retailers looking to exploit consumers, focusing on the personal element of their story from their origins at SAC to the creation of the offshoot company. “We are three guys, our faces are everywhere [all] over the website…we’re not one of these skeleton websites that just has a picture of a mask that could be anyone anywhere. Our idea is to create a bit more of a customer experience…a bit more of a brand, and therefore something that provides a bit of comfort about what they’re purchasing. A lot of people have been reaching out saying ‘it’s great what you’re doing, but how do we know its not too good to be true?’”.
Ultimately, their aim, besides making PPE accessible and affordable, is to undercut any potential price gougers by providing items at cost price.
Greg spoke of the need to get the word out about the initiative, to raise awareness of products available at cost and force competition for those thinking of reselling at exploitative prices. “Either you come down to meet us,” making all products more affordable, explains Greg, “or no-one’s going to buy off you.” Unrealistic competition will hopefully level the playing field – that said, it hasn’t wiped out profiteers yet: “We keep finding them online, £79 for 50 masks [the other day] and we charge £14.50.”
For more information about Students Against Corona, check out their website here: http://studentsagainstcorona.co.uk/
To read more about MaskBros or explore their online shop, click here: https://www.maskbros.co.uk/