LONDON — The coronavirus may have sent luxury shares tumbling and damaged consumer confidence in China, but it’s proving a boon for one product in particular: the surgical face mask.
Until recently, the masks were cheap, easily available, and an everyday essential for surgeons, dental hygienists and nail salon staff. Now consumers are paying inflated prices for the masks, while pharmacies across the U.K., Hong Kong, China and in cities including Paris, Milan, Sydney and Vancouver have been picked clean of them.
Tourists and locals alike are snapping up the masks in regions where cases of the coronavirus have been confirmed — and even where it hasn’t yet surfaced — and some are even going for the more solid N95 models, which are commonly used by construction workers.
The coronavirus is spread by coughing, sneezing and respiratory droplets, and while there is no proof the masks are 100 percent effective, people see them as a means of preventing the spread of the sickness.
The British retail chain Boots has been unable to keep up with demand. A few days ago, the Scottish capital Edinburgh ran out of stock entirely after a few suspected cases of the virus emerged. Boots pharmacies in the city plastered signs on their doors informing customers that they had completely run out.
In London, pharmacies other than Boots have been taking advantage of people’s fears: Zen Pharmacy & Clinic in Knightsbridge is now flipping face masks for as high as 3 British pounds apiece, or 30 times the usual price of about 10 pence.
Other London pharmacies are selling the N95 masks for 40 pounds for a box of 10, and some Asian customers have been buying at least four boxes each. Some pharmacies are down to their last few boxes and have turned to rationing, selling a maximum of five masks to each buyer.
The stories are similar worldwide, and even Amazon has run dry. “People have done a clean sweep and we don’t know when we will get more stock,” said one Vancouver-based pharmacist.
In Milan, drugstores near the Duomo are all out of stock, too, with one pharmacist reporting that over the past few days Asian people have bought around 20 to 30 packs per person. Prices in Milan have remained the same, however.
Paris, instead, has seen price inflation in the most touristy areas, with some masks selling at 0.50 euros apiece around the Champs-Élysées. Pharmacies in the area said they ran out of stock three days ago, and are waiting to hear back from suppliers on when they can restock.
The high volume of sales outside China is likely due to the fact that friends and family are rushing to buy face masks to send to relatives back home. Hand sanitizers and antibacterial wipes are quickly disappearing from shelves, too. Boots’ Antiviral Hand Foam, which claims to protect against swine flu, is out of stock online.
These masks have become luxury goods in more ways than one: They command high prices, they are sold out worldwide, and people are desperate to get their hands on them. Now there is even a gray market, with masks going for at least 10 times the usual retail price, while sources say that fakes are being produced and sold online.
“Hong Kong is really low on stock, and many of the masks on sale are fake,” said a source in the region, who added that the bogus masks appear to be surgical-grade but are made out of alternative materials. Because of a fear of buying fakes, masks made by well-known brands have been the first to go.
ISC H&S, a privately held company in Austria, and 3M, the American corporate giant best known for the Post-it and Scotch tape brands, are the most sought-after manufacturers. Despite the run on face masks, 3M’s share price was down nearly 5.4 percent at $166.20 on the New York Stock Exchange.
Forums and pages of advice have sprung up online about the best masks to buy and how to wear them. Many suggest models with least a 3-ply construction from nonwoven materials and at least 95 percent PPE, or particle filtration efficiency.
While face masks aren’t uncommon, and have previously been worn as a fashion accessory stemming from Japan’s Harajuku girls, or as part of Hong Kong protesters’ uniforms, fashion labels could well jump on the bandwagon and make their own versions, although they’ll need to stand up to surgical-grade scrutiny.