Hurricane Ian may have spared Northwest Florida from disastrous wind and precipitation, but it did compound the inflation-fueled strain on grocery budgets as Floridians stocked up on essential supplies.
For some, rising prices at the grocery store have started to blur the line between what feels like high prices and price gouging.
“People are already struggling just to get to work, to the doctor’s office and eat and take care of themselves personally and take care of their own family’s wellness,” said Chipley resident Linda Davis.
Davis was alarmed when a family member shopping for hurricane supplies sent her a text message with a photo of a 24-pack of Aquafina water at Piggly Wiggly in Graceville with a price tag of $9.49.
“What my issue is was just under that sticker is the regular price of the water,” Davis said.
“I worked at Winn-Dixie for years in the office and as a cashier and stocking. Whether it was my mistake or another employee’s mistake, we had to sell it to them for the price that it originally was.”
The regular price was about half of what it was marked Sept. 27. The difference in price labeling made Davis suspect the store was price gouging supplies as Hurricane Ian was closing in on making landfall in Florida.
“It’s been that price for a month or two,” said Charlie Leuenberger, co-owner of the store. “We haven’t changed the price. We know better than to do that.”
Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office announced as the storm approached that Florida’s price gouging hotline was up and running as residents statewide were stocking up on essential items.
The press release said state law prohibits excessive price increases of essential commodities such as food, water, hotel rooms, ice, gasoline, lumber, equipment and storm-related services during a storm-related declared state of emergency.
According to Florida statute, a price is considered “unconscionable” if there is a gross disparity between the price charged during the state of emergency and the average price during the 30 days before the state of emergency or if the price grossly exceeds the average price of the same or similar commodity in the trade area for 30 days prior to the emergency event.
“We’ve been in business since 1984 here. We know when there’s a hurricane in Florida, you don’t mess with any prices,” Leuenberger said. “We’ve been accused of it a long time ago. They come to find out we didn’t do anything wrong. We know not to mess with anything during a hurricane.”
Leuenberger declined to comment on the store’s pricing strategy as proprietary information and said he doesn’t go out and compare prices much to know if his store is more expensive than others in the tri-county area.
“If the suppliers charge us more for it, we have to raise the price,” Leuenberger said, adding that it’s been across the board on what the grocer carries and worse on some items.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index released Sept. 13, food prices increased 0.8 percent in August which is the smallest increase in that index since December 2021. The food at home index rose 13.5 percent over the past 12 months, the largest 12-month increase since March 1979.
With that kind of price hike on groceries this year, the lines between inflation and price gouging felt blurred for some shoppers.
“Everything is going up right now,” Leuenberger said. “We had Florida Power and Light come in and raise our power bill like $2,000 a month, and minimum wage in Florida is going up to $11 at the end of this month.”
The state’s minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour by Sept. 2026 by one dollar in September each year. Leuenberger is preparing to feel the impact when paying 30 to 35 Piggly Wiggly employees.
Davis said she feels bad for families using credit cards to make ends meet and keep food on the table over the past year.
“There’s just me and my husband, it takes enough just to get what we need,” Davis said.
With a hurricane closing in last week, area residents felt the pain in their wallet a bit more as they stocked up on storm supplies. It’s a struggle Leuenberger empathized with.
“We do our best to keep our prices as low as we can and be able to keep the doors open,” Leuenberger said.
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