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The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has swept us up in more than just widespread concern over the health and safety of our loved ones. The global pandemic has made shambles of the once-routine practice of shopping for everyday products.
Shortages on everything from toilet paper to canned beans are now normal for many Americans, and what is available may be subject to unreasonable price gouging, as we’ve seen with face masks and other items. And while some groups have asked the Department of Justice to intervene, there are steps you can take yourself to prevent getting unduly ripped off.
1. Plan ahead
One of the best ways to avoid dealing with price hikes and the overall shopping frustrations that are happening right now is to first and foremost, always be prepared. This can look different depending on what you’re looking for, but essentially, it means being a mindful shopper.
If you regularly shop on a schedule, having an extra roll or two of toilet paper stashed in the cabinet or a few extra boxes of pasta set aside for a rainy day can make a tremendous difference. While this may seem like advising on the horse that already ran out of the barn, it’s worth keeping in mind that there will always be more rainy days beyond this one.
2. Only shop from trusted places—and sellers
Shopping online as a way to beat the in-store crowds? We get it. While you can definitely still shop online for important household essentials like laundry detergent, trash bags, paper towels, and more, and have them shipped conveniently right to your door, for certain items—like hand sanitizer—expect to run into some hurdles.
Major retailers like Target and Walmart are solid destinations if you want to shop online, as their prices are more likely to stay consistent with what they are in-stores. Just be prepared for long lines or shortages in some parts of the country.
Online marketplaces like eBay and Amazon are attempting vigilance in regards to dubious product claims and price gouging, you may want to take extra precautions and use your best judgment before you buy something, especially if it’s from a third-party seller.
Before you click to purchase, check to see if the product has customer reviews or if they’re suspiciously absent. It should give you a sense of the seller’s reputation.
3. Examine labels
People are hurrying to stock up on items like hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, toilet paper, and other everyday items. Under normal circumstances, you may genuinely want to know what the top-rated toilet paper really is, but in times like this you’re probably willing to settle.
As the pandemic spreads and supplies for certain in-demand products becomes more limited, however, you may find yourself making lighting-quick decisions about what to stuff in your cart. In those instances, you still need to know whether those products are safe and effective.
Case in point: If you’re shopping for hand sanitizer, you should be absolutely sure that it follows recommendations set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, you should be using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available for hand washing, because it can help you avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. By checking labels first, you can figure out whether or not something is even worth buying in the first place. (If you can’t find images of the label online, there’s another big red flag.)
4. Use these free price-tracking tools
Feel like the price of something on Amazon just doesn’t quite add up? If you’re having second thoughts, price-tracking tools like Keepa and Camelcamelcamel are an excellent resource. Designed to track price histories for products on Amazon, these tools are completely free and allow you to create and receive alerts whenever a specific product drops in price. You can get these notifications via email or Twitter, and you can also opt for a Google Chrome extension, which makes it even easier to pull up extended price histories, spot trends, and figure out whether or not something’s actually really a good deal—or on the flip side, a total scam.
5. Maybe don’t buy it, but please don’t hoard it
When in doubt, don’t be afraid to pass. It can seem really difficult, especially as the rise of so-called “pandemic pantries” (so dubbed in a recent report by Nielsen to describe excessive stockpiling of emergency supplies) has led to widespread product shortages. But the most important thing to do right now is to stay calm and avoid hoarding. When it comes to shopping, if a product looks sketch or the price seems too high, the solution at the end of the day is simple: just don’t buy it.
Prices were accurate at the time this article was published but may change over time.
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