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Why prices for N-95 masks are so ‘outrageous’

Supplies running low in China
Posted at 3:08 PM, Apr 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-17 15:08:02-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — The prices of protective equipment like surgical masks and the coveted N-95 masks have gone up exponentially in recent weeks.

“Why is it appropriate to charge $80 for 50 surgical masks or $17.99 for 10 masks when it is one of the hardest hit areas in WNY?” one 7 Eyewitness News viewer wrote to the I-Team, referring to the 14215 ZIP code in East Buffalo and Cheektowaga.

The man who owns three of Buffalo’s rental stores -- including one in that neighborhood -- agrees that prices are “outrageous.”

But Brett Begley, owner of ABC Hardware & Rental on Bailey Avenue, said the off-shoring of medical supplies and prohibitive costs of overseas shipping during the COVID-19 pandemic are the real culprits.

“It's just outrageous what's going on, you know?” Begley said. “It's insane. None of this makes any sense anymore.”

ABC Hardware, which also has a location on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst, has been selling N-95 masks for $7.99 each, or $79.99 for a 10-pack of masks. It has also been advertising a 10-pack of regular surgical masks for $17.99.

The manufacturer 3M recently published a memo stating, “We are actively working to eliminate price gouging, including making referrals to law enforcement where appropriate. To help customers identify and avoid inflated prices, we are now publishing current single-case list prices for many of the most common 3M N95 respirator models sold in the U.S.”

Judging by 3M’s price grid, the list price of regular surgical masks ranges from $0.68 to $3.40, but Begley said that doesn’t include all of the costs associated with shipping the products from China, where supplies are running scarce.

“If you want a mask in this country, it's coming in an airplane,” Begley said. “We order every week. Actually, we've been ordering daily. And the prices keep going up from the factories and the prices keep going up on the shipping.”

Begley said he paid $1,000 air freight to secure a box of N-95 masks from China, and he pays $5 per mask. He charges a markup of $2.99 per mask, he said -- far under what he said is a normal 50 percent margin on safety products.

“We're trying to order -- every week -- 20,000 masks, and then when the demand came, we tried to up [it] to 50,000,” he said.

The Chinese manufacturer said he would be lucky to get the 20,000 masks made, since supplies are running low.

Begley also fears the Chinese government may seek to prevent the masks from being shipped to other parts of the world if masks start to run in low supply in China.

“This is really scary,” he said. “We don't even know if the Chinese government is going to allow this stuff to be shipped.”