LANSING, Mich. — Big box retailer Menards says it mistakenly placed too high a price on face masks it sold in its stores and is apologizing to customers after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sent a warning letter about price gouging during the coronavirus crisis.
"We are all working under a great deal of anxiety and stress and believe that in normal times this most likely would have never happened," spokesman Jeff Abbott said.
"We are very sorry for this mistake," and will offer a higher rebate to customers who bought the overpriced masks, Abbott said in an email to the Free Press.
Nessel sent Menards a "cease and desist" letter Tuesday — a precursor to possible legal action — after her office received 18 complaints from consumers about the retailer selling overpriced bleach, face masks and other items.
Abbott said the company's marketing team noticed that customers in the Midwest were snapping up dust masks, which are often used to protect lungs during home improvement projects and commercial construction projects, "the minute we put them online for sale."
Surgical masks have been in high demand as a possible protection against the coronavirus, and it is likely residents purchased dust masks as a substitute when there were no surgical masks to be found.
The concern was "our Midwestern customers who really needed dust masks were unable to buy them," Abbott said.
"In an attempt to fix this, the team came up with the brilliant idea to raise the online price to $39.95 per two-pack of dust masks and experiment with a large rebate offer, thinking this would restrict dust mask sales to our Midwestern customers as rebates can only be spent in our stores and not online," Abbott said.
He did not say what the price of the masks was before the change, but Nessel said in her news release that items were in some cases being sold for double their normal prices.
"Our intention was to offer around a $35 rebate, but when designing the ad, a $20 placeholder was used on the ad template and posted by mistake on our website," Abbott said. "In the chaos of this crisis, the error went unnoticed for two days, but when discovered was immediately removed from our site."
Abbott said those who purchased the masks will receive a $39.95 rebate when they apply for their $20 rebate, "essentially getting the masks free."
Nessel spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said that "based on Menards' statement, they acknowledge overpricing face masks many are buying in an effort to protect themselves against COVID-19," and Nessel's office looks forward to "receiving a direct response to our concerns from Menards, and will evaluate it at that time."
Also, "this is a perfect example of how important it is to report price-gouging … the minute you see any overpriced item," she said.
Menards has pushed back at the allegation it charged overpriced bleach, saying the price it charged was reasonable.
Nessel had received 823 complaints of price gouging during the coronavirus pandemic as of late Wednesday afternoon, according to a news release.
Her office sent another cease and desist letter Thursday to Warren-based retailer Norkan, Inc., for allegedly selling a 10-pack of face masks for nearly $80, when the normal price is about $23, the news release said. A Norkan official could not immediately be reached for comment.
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