As millions work from home, some online buyers see shortages, price jumps in at-home tech

Price gouging rules generally do not apply to non-essential devices.

April 5, 2020, 4:06 AM

With millions of Americans urged to work from home to further prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, many are dependent on at-home tech devices more so now than ever.

That's getting harder, and more expensive, with a sudden in crush in demand for screens, batteries, USB headsets, webcams or laptop docks online. Many items like these are either out of stock or prices have gone up, according to Will Evert, an IT professional in New York City, the current epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. Evert regularly buys these peripherals online for his users.

"A webcam that normally costs $50-60 is now around $100, and a dock that should be about $180 is $320 on Amazon Prime," Evert told ABC News earlier this week. As of Saturday, the webcam Evert saw was listed as out of stock altogether.

While a New York City emergency rule makes it illegal to jack up the price of products that could help contain the spread of coronavirus, like hand sanitizer, it generally does not apply to products that make is easier to live and work through the viral threat, and prices have gone up with demand.

PHOTO: Working from home.
Working from home.
Reza Estakhrian/Getty Images

Like most people, the switch to working from home happened quickly for Matt Naylor, a biotechnology researcher in Massachusetts. He realized that his home office was not equipped enough to efficiently perform his job. A frequent Amazon customer, when Naylor first started looking online for cheap devices they were completely out of stock.

He said he then tried alternate retailers and various semi-boutique sellers. Naylor, who says webcams add a personal connection by actually seeing his colleagues and family via video, was surprised that he was unable to find even a cheap popular webcam anywhere online. When he eventually found one, he said he felt the pressure to decide between buying a brand with which he was unfamiliar or face a month-long back-order for more recognizable names.

Naylor said that there is also a rapidly depleting stock of other add-ons like headphones and USB microphones. A monitor he purchased one day was out of stock on the same site a few days later, he said.

"It used to be that Amazon or the cheapest retailer wins," he said. "At this point, I'm more looking for who has anything at all that meets the minimum standards."

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson told ABC News that sellers on the site set their own prices, "and we have policies to help ensure sellers are pricing their products competitively.

"We actively monitor our store and remove offers that violate our policies," the statement said. "We have implemented additional measures to keep prices low and our global teams are working 24/7 to monitor prices in our store."

PHOTO: In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, an Amazon distribution center is shown.
In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, an Amazon distribution center is shown.
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

According to Steve Koenig, vice president of research at the Consumer Technology Association, shortages for consumer technology products are likely the result of increased demand and manufacturing disruptions not just now, but earlier this year. But he hopes any disruptions would be resolved quickly.

"The market for consumer technology products is highly competitive," Koenig told ABC News. "In the current crisis, most retailers are competing beyond price to offer flexible delivery and return options."

It varies with the brand and availability, but prices of many of these technology items appear to have gone up.

While the New York City Department of Consumer and Worker Protection has received over 4,600 complaints of price gouging and issued more than 1,000 violations total since March 5, none of those related to portable devices like webcams, laptops, monitors, and USBs, according to Melissa Barosy, spokesperson for the department.

The consumer protection agency has issued an emergency rule under the City’s Consumer Protection Law that makes price gouging illegal for any personal or household good or any service -- disinfectants, soap, and cleaning products, diagnostic products, medicines, and tissues -- that is needed to prevent or limit the spread of or treat new coronavirus patients.

"We will prosecute businesses using this public health crisis to take advantage of New Yorkers who are concerned for their health and we urge consumers to file a complaint if they are overcharged," department head Lorelei Salas said in a recent announcement. "To the business community, if you incurred additional costs to supply these items, we will take that into account but what we cannot tolerate is businesses that are knowingly preying on vulnerable consumers for a profit. Do the right thing. Don’t overcharge."

But the message wasn't aimed at consumer electronics sellers.

PHOTO: Online shopping.
Online shopping.
Stock photo/Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

One way to avoid overpaying is to go for quick fixes for broken devices, rather than trying to buy a brand new replacement.

"Repairing a broken screen is far more efficient, quicker and economical than any other option," Evert said.

Device repair shops are currently closed to retail clients in New York, because they are not considered "essential" businesses in the time of a citywide lock-down.

But even stores who offer in-home repair services are facing unique challenges due to the shortage of parts.

Joe Natanz, owner of i Can Fix It For You, a mobile, tablet and computer repair store, said he gets many of the devices' parts from factories in Wuhan, the original epicenter of the coronavirus, and other parts of China. He said parts that would generally take about three to 10 business days to arrive, now can be delayed up to 14 days.

Natanz said he's seen the price for the parts increase as well, about 15%, while the quality has declined. Parts don’t come pre-assembled or are partially pre-assembled, as they did before -- and that labor must be done here in the U.S.

"We believe this to be short term, so we have decided to eat costs at the current time," he said. "If the pandemic continues, we might have to relay that cost to the consumer due to shrinking profit margins and decreasing labor."

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