Porter’s addresses higher prices after city raises questions

FAR WEST TEXAS — Porter’s is defending itself from criticisms after Marfa officials noted the regional grocery-store chain had raised prices on some goods during the coronavirus pandemic.

Porter’s says any price increases at its stores reflect higher prices from suppliers — and the company has the receipts to prove it.

In a city council meeting on Thursday, Marfa officials discussed the town’s response to the coronavirus, including an ordinance extending a local disaster declaration and a shelter-in-place order. On the packed agenda were proposed local rules against price gouging, even as rules against the practice already exist at the state level.

During the discussion, Councilmember Irma Salgado noted that egg prices at the Porter’s store in Marfa have doubled from around $4 to around $8. Other council people, including Raul Lara, also raised concerns about recent price changes at the store.

Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda pushed back. He said he’d spoken to stores in Marfa and that some were experiencing price increases from their suppliers, resulting in higher prices. He “absolutely” believed that local businesses were doing their best to provide for the community in a time of crisis, he said.

Salgado, who works at local The Get Go grocery store, countered that The Get Go hadn’t seen distributors “raise the price on anything.” The council briefly floated the idea of contacting the Texas attorney general’s office, which investigates price-gouging complaints during state disasters, but ultimately decided against it.

In an interview on Friday, Ky Ellison, a spokesman for Porter’s, acknowledged the store has raised prices on some commodities, including eggs. But he stressed the price increases reflect those from suppliers, who he said were also struggling to keep up as the coronavirus pandemic disrupts supply chains and some customers hoard goods.

Porter’s has adopted purchase limits at some of its stores, he said — including in Marfa, which last week saw limits on toilet paper, hand sanitizer and other household items.

Porter’s still gets regular deliveries at all of its stores and expects to see its supply chains return to normal, Ellison said. In the meantime, he urged customers to be patient and not buy more than they need.

But Ellison emphatically denied that Porter’s is taking advantage of the situation, saying: “That’s not who we are.”

“Anyone who knows Porter’s knows what we stand for,” he said. “There’s never a situation where we think we can take advantage of customers.”

To prove its point, Porter’s even offered to voluntarily share its invoices with The Big Bend Sentinel.

Those records do indeed show that Porter’s is dealing with its own price increases. From March 16 to March 27, for example, the unit price for a 30-count package of grade-A Sunups eggs went up from around $4.17 to $8.83. On some items, the store is even losing money, Ellison said.

Asked about supply-chain price increases, Ellison said he thinks suppliers are also acting in good faith. Porter’s has not filed price-gouging complaints against any suppliers, he said.

A spokesperson for the Texas attorney general’s office on Friday could not immediately comment on concerns of price gouging in the area. Complaints are handled on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Unlike some states, like California, Texas doesn’t specify how much prices can increase during disasters. Rather, Texas law just says the price increases can’t be “exorbitant or excessive.”

Porter’s could still be running afoul of local price-gouging rules, though. At the city council meeting on Thursday, Marfa adopted pricing rules on many essential items, including groceries, that were stricter than the state’s rules.

The city capped prices on goods at their price on or before March 13.  It’s unclear if or how local authorities will enforce those rules on Porter’s, though local and state law enforcement will be enforcing a related shelter-in-place order. The ordinance says that violators could face up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Asked about the local rules, Ellison, the Porter’s spokesman, said the company is working to contact Marfa City Council about the rules.

Still, he stressed that the city’s and Porter’s goals are the same: to “take care of the community of Marfa as best we can.”

The Big Bend Sentinel has asked the Texas attorney general’s office for records on all price-gouging complaints filed in Presidio, Brewster and Jeff Davis counties, including the status of any such investigations. A response is pending.