VANCOUVER—As Manny Ranga and his wife, Violeta Perez, loaded up their Ford F-150 pickup outside a Costco near downtown Vancouver this week, some passersby couldn’t help but stop and stare.
What stood out wasn’t just the sheer volume of the couple’s purchase. It was the fact that it was all the same product: Stacks upon stacks of Lysol disinfecting wipes.
“Is that all for you?” one stranger asked.
“Cleaning company,” Perez answered.
She was technically correct — they had just cleaned out the store.
The couple say they’ve made a bundle in the past three weeks hitting up every Costco store in the region each day, buying up as many Lysol wipes and liquid cleaners as they can — spending thousands of dollars at a time — and then reselling them, mostly on Amazon, to private individuals and companies.
Amid the growing coronavirus outbreak, the hoarding and reselling of certain household supplies to make a quick buck has become a global phenomenon, contributing to frenzied panic buying by shoppers who’ve been fed a steady diet of images of empty store shelves on social media.
Ranga, 38, said one six-pack of wipes that goes for $ 20 at Costco can fetch four times that online. (A check of Amazon on Thursday showed that a six-pack was going for $ 89 under their seller name “Violeta & Sons Trading Ltd.”)
After shelling out about $ 70,000 in bulk buys, Ranga said they’ve made more than $ 100,000 in sales.
“It’s a big opportunity with all these products,” he said.
Amazon was said to be cracking down on “bad actors” who were raising prices on basic needs products by blocking or removing offers. “There is no place for price gouging on Amazon,” the company said, according to media reports.
The government in Japan, meanwhile, reportedly introduced new rules making the reselling of face masks for profit a crime punishable by a one-year jail term or a hefty fine.
Ken Whitehurst, executive director of the Consumers Council of Canada, said Thursday that while it’s not clear what impact large-scale buying and selling of products is having on the overall supply chain in Canada, he takes a dim view of people who would exploit emotions.
“It makes you queasy in the stomach when people exploit an emergency solely for the purpose of making few extra dollars,” he said.
Retailers can always exercise informal supply management by limiting how much of a product can be bought at one time, he said. While there are laws aimed at addressing “unconscionable pricing,” government authorities will typically only intervene if they know that vital safety interests of the public are being compromised.
The fact that the Japanese government stepped in with new rules on reselling masks sends a signal that this is a situation where “citizens are in it together,” he said.
“My observation is the Japanese government is making a statement that … people who are doing this need to stop and consider the contribution they could be making to public hysteria.”
After filling up the bed of his pickup with stacks of wipes, Ranga drove back to the couple’s Vancouver home to unload the merchandise. Perez, 37, stayed behind, keeping watch over a second trolley-load, while munching on a Costco hot dog.
“Someone’s making a lot of money,” said a curious passerby.
Perez explained their business venture was sparked a few weeks ago when they went to the store to buy supplies, including hand sanitizer. A woman stopped them outside the store and offered to pay them double what they had paid, she said.
The couple, who describe themselves as home developers, immediately saw an opportunity.
“Everything we do, we’re in the moment,” she said. “We’re hustlers.”
It’s simple supply and demand, Perez said. And right now, there’s “high demand.”
Every day, while a nanny cares for their three young children, the couple fans out across the region, hitting up Costcos in Vancouver, Richmond and Burnaby working with quick efficiency.
Timing, she said, is everything. Show up later in the day and sometimes a lot of stock is gone.
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Perez said while some Costco staff have responded to their daily visits with a “good for you” attitude, some store managers greet them more icily and have told them customer complaints are mounting.
The store near downtown Vancouver threatened to impose limits on how much could be purchased at one time, Perez said.
“It’s not fair,” she said. “We’re not the only ones who do it.”
The Star reached out to Costco for comment but did not receive a response.
The enterprise has turned into an all-consuming affair. Perez said her husband opened a Fed-Ex account and bought tape guns and other shipping supplies.
If buyers are local, he’ll make deliveries in person. Otherwise, he’ll send them through the post office.
Perez said she actually wanted her husband to wait a couple more weeks before selling, but he was too “excited” to get started.
Later, at the couple’s home, as Ranga transferred another truckload of wipes into his garage, he explained why he’s mainly focusing on wipes and cleaning liquids and not other in-demand products, such as toilet paper.
Toilet paper packages are “too big” and “harder to ship.” Because the six-pack wipes already come in protective wrap, he can just slap on a shipping form and send it off.
His home garage isn’t the only place where he stores his merchandise; there’s also a car wash in south Vancouver where he drops off supply, he said.
Archipelago Auto Spa owner Jerry Hu later confirmed to the Star that he helps Ranga sell some of the cleaning products.
But it turns out, he’s got his own side gig, too — selling face masks.
Hu pointed to one corner of his car wash where there was a small stack of inventory. He said he’s got about 50 boxes left after buying thousands from suppliers in the United States and then advertising them on WeChat and other social media channels.
Many of his earlier buyers resold them to places in China, he said. Now his customers are buying for domestic use.
He said his profit margins have ranged from 20 to 30 per cent.
Asked if he felt bad that he was potentially depriving customers of key supplies during a health crisis, Ranga noted that there are many people buying supplies and hoarding it for themselves. At least he’s putting it back out for consumption.
“I’ve got to pay the bills. With a regular job, I won’t be making this money,” he said, adding, “I know it won’t last forever.”
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