Retailers could face huge fines for price gouging rapid antigen tests, watchdog warns

ACCC boss Rod Sims says massive retail mark-ups on COVID-19 rapid antigen testing kits are "beyond the pale" and "extremely concerning".

ACCC Chair Rod Sims speaks to the media during a press conference about the pricing of rapid antigen tests, at Hyde Park in Sydney.

ACCC Chair Rod Sims speaks to the media during a press conference about the pricing of rapid antigen tests, at Hyde Park in Sydney. Source: AAP

The competition watchdog has promised massive fines for retailers found to be marking up rapid antigen tests, after evidence of "beyond outrageous" price gouging of consumers.

Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims said on Monday the watchdog had received a number of “extremely concerning reports” about “very high pricing”.

He said those found to have breached the rules could face fines of up to $10 million or 10 per cent of the turnover per breach.

The ACCC said the highest price it had seen advertised for a single test was more than $1,000 on an online marketplace.

Some tests have reportedly cost $70 through smaller retail outlets, according to the ACCC, despite wholesale costs ranging between $3.95 and $11.45 a test. Common reports found rapid antigen tests being sold for between $20 to $30 per test.

“We want action now - we want prices down now because Australian consumers should not be paying ridiculous prices for a product they desperately need in the middle of a pandemic," Mr Sims said.

The evidence of marked-up pricing has been uncovered by the ACCC from an investigation launched in December, as the supply of rapid tests has struggled to keep up with soaring demand in response to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases around Australia. 

The watchdog is continuing to analyse more than 1,800 reports from members of the public. Close to 150 reports are coming in each day about high RAT pricing, it said.

Mr Sims labelled retail mark-ups of more than 100 per cent on rapid antigen tests as "beyond the pale" and said the agency was working with the Therapeutics Goods Administration (TGA) and the Australian Federal Police to stamp this out. 

He said the body would not hesitate to act if retail pricing is found to amount to “unconscionable conduct”.

“Naming and shaming getting the message out is the faster way to get those [prices] down if we have to take court action we will,” he told reporters.

Chemists were the worst offenders, followed by convenience stores, tobacconists, supermarkets and petrol stations, with the ACCC pointing in particular to some King of the Pack and Metro Petroleum stores. More than 100 complaints had been received for those two chain stores alone.

The competition watchdog said it had contacted more than 40 test suppliers, major retailers and pharmacy chains seeking information about their cost, current pricing and stock availability.

"We're very much looking forward to what [retailers] explanations are for the very high pricing that's been reported," Mr Sims said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has blamed a global supply shortage over difficulties in sourcing the tests.

“The rapid antigen tests are in short supply all around the world,” he told 2GB Radio.

“This is not something that is unique to Australia going through it. It's part of dealing with Omicron.”

But Mr Sims said this was no excuse for exorbitant prices.

“Clearly we are facing a supply issue that’s driving the price issue there is no doubt about that,” he told reporters.

Most reports received by the ACCC have related to businesses selling tests in New South Wales.

The ACCC also said the prices reported by consumers were increasing, despite its crackdown. 

The most commonly complained about retail price in our reports was around $20 for a single test. From 7 January, the average and the highest prices reported to the ACCC rose to around $24 and $80 to $100 respectively.

Some retailers are also reportedly refusing to provide receipts or providing incorrect receipts to consumers.

It is also investigating the selling of separated individual tests from multi-packs describing this as a “significant issue”, which is also being addressed by the TGA.

The federal government earlier this year moved to make it illegal to mark up the price of rapid antigen tests more than 20 per cent. 

“I’m extremely hopeful that once we get the supplies that we need we’ll get back to that pricing of $10 as an appropriate price,” Mr Sims said.

The ACCC is also continuing to investigate potential scams connected with the sale of rapid antigen tests.

4 min read
Published 17 January 2022 at 4:07pm
By Tom Stayner