AG probes Ann Arbor business accused of price-gouging hand sanitizer

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel's office has received court approval for investigative subpoenas of an Ann Arbor-based business accused of price-gouging of hand sanitizer during the COVID-19 pandemic, officials announced Monday.

Her office has received 11 consumer complaints against A.M. Cleaning & Supplies that allege the store drastically increased its prices of hand sanitizer, representatives said in a statement. 

"Complaints began after the business posted a message on social media advertising hand sanitizer at $60 for a 12-ounce bottle, $40 for an 8-ounce bottle and $20 for a 4-ounce bottle," the release said. "Days before, the bottles were reportedly priced at $7.50, $5 and $2.50, respectively."

The Attorney General’s Office sent a cease-and-desist letter on March 11, "but conflicting statements in the business’ response to that, along with evidence obtained from consumers who bought hand sanitizer at the store," led investigators to seek subpoenas and probe suspected violations of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.

A.M. Cleaning & Supplies officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday night. 

According to its website, the business launched in 2004 and specializes in professional janitorial cleaning for office buildings and commercial properties in Washtenaw and Wayne counties.

In a written response to the Attorney General Office's complaint included in court filings, owner Anthony Marshal said a social media picture showing bottles sold at $60, $40 and $20 was taken during restocking and reflected prices for eight-packs, not individual units.

"I decided to break apart the 8 packs and sell them at their individual marked prices of $7.50, $5.00, and $2.50, but the photo in question was taken when the shelves were in the middle of being restocked and it is misleading of actual prices because the bottles in the photo LOOK LIKE they are on the shelf as being sold individually, but for 8 pack pricing," he wrote, records show.

"Once the shelf was fully restocked, the price tags were changed to reflect their individual prices of $7.50, $5.00, and $2.50," he wrote, according to court records. "I want to make it clear that I was not trying to sell individual bottles of Purell at the prices listed in the photo and that the negative reviews and complaints that you received have come from online people, that have not been actual customers and are only responding based on that 1 misleading photo."

One of the complaints to the state was from a customer who provided a receipt showing she paid $67.84 for three bottles, Nessel's office said.

Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge David Swartz on Friday approved a request for subpoenas compelling the business to provide March transaction records as well as testimony from the owner and employees. 

“Legal recourse is not the preferred option, but my office will take any necessary steps to determine whether reports of price-gouging are valid,” Nessel said. “Businesses must play by the rules and if a company is breaking the law, we will hold it accountable. Michigan consumers looking to buy products they need or to protect their health during this pandemic will not be subjected to excessively high prices.”

Meanwhile, reports to her office of price-gouging related to COVID-19 have reached 2,099 since early March, when it began tracking those complaints, officials said Monday. That includes 1,121 complaints received via phone through the Consumer Protection tip line and 978 complaints filed online.