Inside the Coronavirus-Inspired Marketplace Where People Are Upselling Toilet Paper (and Other Bunker Necessities)

As supermarket shelves empty, online stores are filling up with supplies for double, triple and quadruple the cost

The new coronavirus, in the eyes of many, is an infectious plague that requires careful planning for us to pull through. For some, this careful planning has taken the form of freaking out in the middle of a Costco and panic-buying an excess of doomsday supplies, like hand sanitizer, canned foods and toilet paper. In fact, people have gone so far with the stockpiling that stores around the world have been forced to limit just how many jugs of hand sanitizer and rolls of toilet paper each shopper can take home with them. Even still, some shoppers are forced to return home empty-handed, without anything to wipe with.

By the law of supply and demand, toilet paper has become a hot commodity — as have other doomsday items, like surgical masks, the aforementioned hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes — and online marketplaces like eBay, Amazon and Craigslist have seen a boom in sellers who are stockpiling these goods, then at least attempting to resell them to desperate, virus-spooked buyers for profit. Hell, arcades are even stocking their claw machines with toilet paper and small bottles of hand sanitizer to lure in anyone willing to test their luck for some basic necessities.

Amazon has been swarmed by so many money-hungry sellers hoping to take advantage of the coronavirus panic, that they were recently forced to remove or block more than one million products for price-gouging and misleading claims related to the pandemic. The company also recently announced that they were actively monitoring the situation and taking down any products that violate their policies, as did eBay. (Price-gouging is, in fact, illegal in many states.)

But even with these measures in place, Amazon, eBay and Craigslist remain as hubs for people upselling toilet paper and other quarantine-related supplies. This phenomenon has become so well-known, people are already producing satire and making memes about how drug dealers have ditched their once-profitable pharmaceuticals to make more money selling toilet paper instead.

Most people are, of course, incredibly pissed about all of this. In a public letter to anyone reselling goods in order to cash in on the coronavirus, one Reddit user [sic] writes, “I hope that every time you’re barefoot or wear just socks that you step on something cold and wet. I hope that you constantly get paper cuts in between your fingers. I hope that there’s a pebble in your shoe that you just can’t get out. I hope that there’s something pokey in your jeans, but when you go to get it, you can’t find it. I hope that you get food stuck in your teeth and you can never find floss to get it out because some freak bought out the entire stock.”

While I was scouring Craigslist for people upselling toilet paper, I stumbled upon a since-removed post that encouraged users to flag “opportunistic assholes” reselling goods to cash in on the coronavirus. I messaged them to get their perspective on the whole mess, and they replied, “I posted it because it’s totally ridiculous that people are buying up all the supplies, and they don’t even need them, just to make a profit. I have elderly parents over 75 that can’t get any of the stuff they need to protect themselves, and the elderly people are the ones that really need to worry about the coronavirus, so what’s all the panic about? From what I’ve read, way more people have died from the flu than the coronavirus in the last four months [there’s still much to learn about the coronavirus, though, so this comparison is a bit dangerous]. It’s disgusting to me that asshole people are willing to make a profit at everyone else’s expense. Don’t even get me started on the news creating this whole panic.”

So, yeah, many people are upset about the quarantine-good resellers. There are, however, some sympathizers out there, such as this person on Reddit who essentially writes [sic], that this is capitalism, folks: “If people see a facet to make money, then they should be allowed to do it. That’s what makes this country (the United States) great. If idiots buy it instead of being sensible people that wipe with a towel/their hand, or buy some before the apocalypse, then that’s on them. They’re dumb.”

Now, admittedly, people stockpiling stuff from stores and selling it for a higher price on the internet is nothing new. Some people do it as a career, and they call it retail arbitrage. Some time ago, I spoke with a retail arbitrager named Shane Myers, and asked him about the ethics of what he was doing. He responded, “If you go to a retail store and buy all of one item, some of the customers might be a little upset at you. But you have to realize that, when you sell online and do retail arbitrage, you’re doing the exact same thing that Walmart or Target is doing. They’re buying an item at a low price, and they’re selling it to a user for more. It’s the exact same thing, but it has a negative connotation, because people don’t understand that Walmart is doing that, since they’re so used to going to the store to buy stuff.”

While he had a point — and still does, of course — saying that you can do it because big business does it, too, is at best a questionable attempt at moralizing something blatantly immoral (capitalism and all that mess).

But as everyone points their rage toward the people who are reselling toilet paper online, what does it say about our society that some of us feel the need to try to make a few extra bucks off of the coronavirus in the first place? Surely, reselling toilet paper or surgical masks on a small scale, rather than on the scale that big companies are already doing so, is far from a booming business. In fact, I texted a dude who was reselling face masks on Craigslist for $120 a box, and frankly, he was struggling. “This business is not good,” he told me in broken English. “We need people to consume masks, otherwise no real demand. If a lot of people wear masks everyday, then there will be a lot of business. But until now, you cannot see people wear masks at all, no matter what.” (The company he bought the masks from sure made money, though.)

Considering how many people are struggling to afford even basic health care, surely some of these alleged nasty people reselling goods in a time of need are just hoping to make enough money to keep themselves and their family healthy. Or maybe to stay afloat because the coronavirus halted their real job, and their company refuses to provide them with paid sick leave.

Perhaps, then, like Myers said, our rage is somewhat misdirected. You can still be mad at the people trying to make money on eBay off of a pandemic, but big companies have been making money off of the coronavirus this whole time. On Wednesday night, right after President Trump announced to America that insurance companies “have agreed to waive all co-payments for coronavirus treatments,” those same companies immediately clarified that, actually, they’d only be waiving copays for “testing.” Because they need to add that sweet, sweet coronavirus cash to their already-giant pile of gold (and let’s not even get into the fact that they aren’t testing people quickly enough anyway).

Be mad at the people taking advantage. But also make sure to reserve some of your rage for the capitalistic system that promotes and encourages this kind of behavior, the one that forces people to scrape for every single penny they can get — even if that means selling toilet paper online for double the price to someone who just needs to take a shit.