By MK Saye
There is no denying that in this time of economic hardship due to Covid-19, businesses across the country have been hit hard. The demand is higher than normal for grocery items because more people desire to quarantine for periods of time and only go out when necessary. It’s basic economic reasoning to assume that when there is a spike in demand, retailers will want to take advantage of this opportunity by raising prices. This is reasonable and simply a wise move on the part of business owners, but this can become unfair and even unlawful when prices are raised beyond a reasonable amount. It is the suspicion of many in the Sewanee community that the Sewanee Market is one such business that is charging unfair prices for goods.
findlaw.com provides a summary of the law for the penalties and prohibitions each state has when it comes to the prices of necessities such as food. In the state of Tennessee when a state of emergency has been declared, a business cannot charge “‘grossly excessive’ prices for food, construction services, emergency supplies, or other vital goods or services” (findlaw.com).
According to Market owner Harry Patel, “as a small business, we can’t match the prices of large chains or retail giants such as Walmart.” However, even in times sans pandemic, a small business wouldn’t be able to compete with a large and national business such as Walmart. Setting this aside, we can entertain this claim with a simple math equation calculating percentage increase. According to an anonymous source, the price of a gallon of whole milk at the Market is $5.25. The price of a gallon of whole milk at the closest Walmart in Winchester is $3.08. Patel is correct that a small business is not able to match the price of a larger one; however, the percentage increase of 41.3% can be considered “‘grossly excessive’” as most states prohibit at levels of 10%-15% increase.
SGA’s president, Ivana Porashka (C’21), spoke with Patel and then participated in a meeting at Chen Hall with Vice-Chancellor Brigety to discuss three other concerns of students in regards to his store. The first concern is that many employees in his store have not been masking, which is a health risk to the “bubble.” Patel explained that he “fully support[s] the mask mandate, and all employees are required to wear a mask” and cited that two employees have medical reasons for not masking. A number of students have said that when they go into the store, many or none of the employees wear masks— including the ones who work directly with food. This is a serious health concern, and one that should not be taken lightly especially in a time where a highly contagious virus is thriving.
The second concern is the lack of itemized receipts. Customers must ask specifically for an itemized receipt in order to see their expenses. Patel’s response to this is first that “we care about sustainability” and second, “you can expect to be asked if you would like to have your receipt or not, and we will gladly provide our standard receipt.” While they are willing to grant a customer an itemized receipt, this is not the receipt a cashier will give unless specifically asked.
The third concern is pricing, specifically that there are no listed prices in the store. Patel responded that “prices change week to week” because he works with “a variety of suppliers” and “supply chains have been disrupted by the ongoing pandemic.” If, however, the term “sticker price” is taken literally, one could find it easy to remedy the changes in price with the simple act of removing a sticker and changing it for a new one. In addition, according to the Tennessee Consumer Protection Act of 1977, “no person shall represent the price in any manner calculated or tending to mislead or in any way deceive a person.” Even though a customer can ask at the register for the price of an item, should they be expected to do this for every item? Not only is not having a sticker price misleading, it causes a waste of a customer’s time.
In Porashka’s conversation with Patel, Patel made two tangible promises for the future of the Market. One is that a new register system that will automatically print itemized receipts is “in the works,” according to Patel. The second is that sticker prices will start to be put up either in January or when the pandemic has settled down.
Patel has said that “honest and transparent dialogue are the keystones for outcome-oriented conversation.” I don’t think anyone could agree more. In light of his tangible promises for some changes, honesty remains the best policy. So let’s be honest. We are all affected by the pandemic for the foreseeable future. This hasn’t and will continue not to be easy for anyone. Making sure that we do our part to ensure the safety of those around us is vital. Choosing to wear masks, especially while working with food, signals recognition that caring for the community’s well-being is a worthy cause. Finally, offering prices that are consistent with the hardship that everyone is going through is not only beneficial for customers and a store’s credibility, but also not an outlandish request.