The simplest model of a market involves two things: supply and demand. The price and quantity of the goods sold in the market are a function of both. When a natural disaster hits, the immediate effect can be two-fold. In such situations, it’s not unusual that the demand for certain products may increase. For example, if everyone is trying to leave an area, the demand for gas may rise.

The other effect is that supply for certain products may decrease. For example, it may be more costly to transport gas in areas affected by a natural disaster, thus reducing the supply of gas and, in turn, increasing the price.

How Does Supply and Demand Work?

The concept of supply and demand is used to explain how price is influenced by the supply of goods and services available and the consumer demand for those products.

When supply decreases, the price of the good increases. Inversely, when the supply of the good increases, the price falls. A similar relationship exists between price and demand. When the demand for the good increases, the price of the good also increases. When the demand decreases, the price of the good falls with it.

In instances when the demand for a good or service suddenly increases, it’s natural to assume the price of the product will rise. But what about the price of essential items during a time of crisis? Does the booming demand always justify the increased rates? When costs rise to unfair levels due to a lack of supply or boost in demand, it’s often referred to as “price gouging.”

Access Your Free E-Book | Download Now

What is Price Gouging?

Price gouging occurs when companies raise prices to unfair levels. There’s no rule for what qualifies as price gouging, but it’s not an uncommon occurrence. For example, EpiPen costs and Uber price surges are both examples of price increases that have been considered unfair.

Price Gouging During Natural Disasters

Price gouging often occurs when there’s a sudden surge in demand for a given good, service, or commodity, such as in the case of natural disasters and emergencies. In times like these, the demand for non-essential items and luxuries dwindles, leading many businesses to lose the sales they normally rely on. To offset this loss, retailers might raise the prices of essential items in an effort to stay in business. On the other hand, when the demand for essential items or services suddenly increases, the supply can quickly become very limited, further increasing prices.

Take the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, for example. To help limit the spread of the virus, governments are urging people to practice social distancing and self-isolation. An unintended consequence is a shortage of essential supplies—like hand sanitizer and disinfectants—due to the rush of people preparing to stay home for the foreseeable future. As a result, there have been reports of price gouging for such items.

The phenomenon is not new or uncommon. Stories of price gouging in Florida after Hurricane Matthew made headlines in 2016 when prices for gas, hotels, water, and other essentials skyrocketed during a declared state of emergency. The same issue arose in Texas following Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

When demand reaches such high levels, it can be hard to tell the difference between supply and demand and price gouging. Policymakers and business professionals have historically had mixed opinions on whether businesses should raise prices during a crisis for this reason.

Related: 5 Reasons Why You Should Study Economics

The Price Gouging Debate

Price increases due to natural disasters are a classic example of price gouging, and the government will usually intervene and directly prevent companies from doing so. But there can be unintended consequences to such market interventions, which explains the ongoing debate among economists and policymakers regarding the proper response to natural disasters and price gouging.

For business owners, deciding how to adjust prices during a time of crisis is both a practical and moral question. In many cases, raising prices on high-demand items can help offset the loss of revenue from low-demand ones and keep a company in business. At the same time, business owners are morally obligated to provide customers fair access to essential items in times of need.

Should Businesses Raise Prices During a Crisis?

For managers and business owners, deciding what’s best for both their company and its customers is a complex task, especially in a crisis.

There will always be those who try to intentionally benefit from these kinds of scenarios. Many economists argue that taking advantage of a boom in demand is a reasonable aspect of a market-based economy. But professionals often find themselves walking the line between raising prices enough to stay in business and remaining fair to their customers.

With this dilemma comes questions of practicality:

  • Will raising the price of product X make up for the loss in sales of product Y? 
  • Are there other ways to cut costs and make up the difference? 
  • Does the increase in demand, or lack of supply, really justify an increase in price?

On top of these are issues of morality:

  • Will raising prices limit access to essential items for those in need? 
  • Will making these changes inadvertently risk the health and safety of members of the community? 
  • Are there unintended consequences that raising prices could cause?

The answers to these questions are hardly ever straightforward. If a business owner decides that raising prices is the best course of action, they must determine at what point the increase crosses the line of what’s justified by the concept of supply and demand and becomes unfair. To further complicate the issue, many anti-price gouging state laws provide only vague guidelines for businesses, making it even more difficult to decide where the difference between supply and demand and price gouging lies.

Price Gouging Laws

Regardless of whether a business decides to raise its prices during a pandemic, natural disaster, or other crisis, the professionals making that decision need to be aware of what price gouging laws they’re subject to.

In the United States, 24 state governments and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation prohibiting price gouging during a declared state of emergency or market disruption. During the time of the coronavirus outbreak, this number has fluctuated. States without formal price gouging laws may enact emergency legislation in certain situations.

There is no universal standard as to what constitutes price gouging. In some states, price increases that are greater than a certain percentage of the price of the same or similar items before a market disruption occurred are illegal, but those percentages vary. Other states take a broader approach by prohibiting price increases of “unconscionably excessive” amounts.

The penalties for businesses charged with price gouging also vary. In North Carolina, for example, courts can impose fines of up to $5,000 for each violation, and enforce refunds for the customers affected. Under this law, manufacturers, distributors, and retailers can be held accountable.

The Debate Continues

As the United States navigates a difficult economic time and surge in reports of price gouging, the debate of whether or not this practice is a justified response to supply and demand continues.

For managers and business owners tasked with adjusting pricing strategies in response to economic, social, and legal conditions, creating a plan that’s best for both their company and its consumers requires an intimate knowledge of business, the economy, and the situation at hand.

Not only do they need to consider the moral implications of their decisions, but know the fundamentals of economics in order to understand how the market works and the intricacies of the different factors at play.

Want to read more about the price gouging debate? Here are several resources:

Are you interested in deepening your understanding of economics? Download our free Guide to Advancing Your Career with Essential Business Skills to learn how furthering your business knowledge can advance your career.

This post was updated on April 1, 2020. It was originally published on October 13, 2016.