Former Air Force Tech. Sgt. Matt Colvin had by far the worst coronavirus weekend of anyone who's not actually ill with COVID-19. He gave an interview to The New York Times about a business crisis he was facing due to the virus, and the internet's most ferocious commenters got out their pitchforks.
Colvin makes his living in Tennessee through retail arbitrage, the business of buying closeout or thrift store merchandise and reselling it on the internet. It's an incredibly competitive business that requires sellers to act fast and sell their stock quickly.
Monitoring the top searches on Amazon a few weeks back, Colvin realized that customers were looking for Purell hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and breathing masks. His instincts kicked into gear, and he made an investment in merchandise.
First, he bought 2,000 "pandemic packs" (each included 50 face masks, four small bottles of hand sanitizer and a thermometer) from a defunct company for $3.50 each. Those quickly sold out at between $40 and $50 each on eBay.
Since that worked out so well, Matt decided to go all in on hand sanitizers and wipes, driving around to Dollar Generals in rural towns and cleaning them out. He amassed 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and was doing a brisk business at between $8 and $40 a bottle on Amazon and eBay, until both companies decided to shut him down for price gouging.
Colvin, a data-driven technical sergeant to his core, gave an interview in which he portrayed himself as a small-business owner victimized by circumstance. That's not what readers saw.
Because it's 2020, people got really angry at Matt for being the pandemic version of a war profiteer. People finally got scared over the weekend and couldn't buy wipes or hand sanitizer, and they decided that was because Colvin bought them all.
The death threats poured in (again: public discourse in 2020), and the Times reporter, who had unkindly failed to ask Matt whether he understood what people might think before the story went online, showed a bit of mercy and quickly added an update that mentioned Colvin was now considering donating his cache of germ killers.
Slightly more than 48 hours later, The New York Times ran a follow-up story detailing how Colvin had donated all remaining 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and his stockpile of antibacterial wipes. Two-thirds of the bounty was given to a local church for distribution in Tennessee, and Colvin aimed to turn over the rest to the Tennessee attorney general's office so that the state could pass the goods on to Kentucky officials, since he had acquired a sizable chunk of his supplies in that state.
The crisis is not over for Colvin. He's being investigated under Tennessee's price-gouging law, which prohibits charging "grossly excessive" prices for food, gas and medical supplies once the governor declares a state of emergency. He's hoping the fact that Amazon and eBay shut down his sales before Gov. Bill Lee made that declaration will save him from prosecution.
Colvin genuinely didn't see this coming. "I've been buying and selling things for 10 years now. There's been hot product after hot product. But the thing is, there's always another one on the shelf," he said to the Times. "When we did this trip, I had no idea that these stores wouldn't be able to get replenished."
What are the lessons here? Colvin's business is really just a small-scale version of the "hidden shareholder value" principles that dominated Wall Street for the past four decades. He finds assets that have been allocated to the wrong market, rescues them and charges new customers for locating a scarce item. No one complained when he was making money off rare Nike sneakers and hard-to-find toys at Christmastime but, all of a sudden, the world is denouncing him over something as innocent (to him) as hand sanitizer.
Ten days ago, major media outlets were claiming that COVID-19 was being inflated into a media hoax, and even the White House insisted that we had nothing to worry about. Some might have said back then that Matt was merely taking advantage of liberal hysteria and, really, what's the harm in that?
All of it begs some deeper questions. Why aren't there more secure careers available to veteran Air Force technical sergeants? What's our responsibility to each other in a national crisis? And are bacterial wipes and hand sanitizer really any better at killing a virus than running water and a bar of hand soap?
Here's hoping Matt and his family stay safe and come through their media trauma in one piece. No one wants to be remembered as a villain, especially when they didn't set out to be one in the first place.