COVID-19 price gouging complaints against Menards

    "Menards Marion, IL" by Mike Kalasnik is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

    The famous slogan is “save big money at Menards,” but the Michigan attorney general’s office has put the Eau Claire-based home improvement retailer on notice for allegations of price-gouging on products in high demand during the COVID-19 emergency.

    “Big box stores are not immune to the Michigan Consumer Protection Act or the Governor’s Executive Order,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement this week. “Large corporations must also play by the rules, and my office will work diligently to ensure this state’s consumers are treated fairly and not abused by businesses seeking to unlawfully jack prices up to line their pockets with profits at the expense of the public during this time of great need.”

    Nessel’s office issued a cease-and-desist letter to Menards on Tuesday, March 17, citing 18 written consumer complaints and an investigation of Menards stores in Michigan.

    “The Attorney General has probable cause to believe Menards has violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act through a systemic effort to exploit the public fear about Coronavirus,” the letter said, citing sharp price hikes for bleach and face masks.

    “Menards appears to have grossly elevated prices,” the letter said. “Items like bleach that were sold at one price were apparently sold minutes later at prices approximately twice which others had paid. The price consumers were charged for the face masks, whether with or without the rebate, appear grossly in excess of the prices for comparable masks our investigators found for sale at competitors like Lowes and Home Depot.”

    Wisconsin Examiner call to Menards corporate headquarters seeking comment was not immediately returned on Thursday. The Associated Press quoted a statement from the company calling the Clorox price reasonable because of a higher bleach concentration in the product. “We are disappointed and are taking this very seriously,” the spokesman, Jeff Abbott said in the statement.

    With an estimated net worth of a little over $10 billion according to the Forbes 400 list of billionaires, Menards owner John Menard Jr., is identified as Wisconsin’s richest person. His hardball tactics with employees have drawn repeated scrutiny from journalists, and he’s been a longtime, big-money political donor, exclusively to Republicans.

    In Wisconsin, Menards has also been named in two complaints filed with the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) since Gov. Tony Evers declared a Health Emergency March 12 triggering Wisconsin’s price-gouging law, according to DATCP spokesman Ti Gauger, who said those complaints have been evaluated, but the that department does not comment on active investigations.

    Five other complaints to DATCP’s Consumer Protection Division were sent before the governor’s executive order declaring the emergency, which made the price-gouging law enforceable.

    In all, the department has received 36 price-gouging complaints naming a number of different firms as of Thursday morning, Gauger said.

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.