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    Va. Retailers Warned of Gouging

    Consumers bracing for Hurricane Isabel's impact, investigators keeping an eye on grocery and fuel prices.

    RICHMOND, Va. -- The Virginia Petroleum Convenience and Grocery Association (VPVGA) and the Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore warned retailers against price gouging as the East braces for Hurricane Isabel.

    After Hurricane Floyd in 1999, several attempts to pass bills that discouraged price gouging failed. Virginia merchants can raise prices of goods that suddenly are in high demand.

    State law allows the governor to set prices during a disaster, but that would only be done in extreme situations, such as war, the Hampton Roads (Va.) Daily Press reported.

    VPCGA warned its members -- independently owned convenience stores throughout the state -- that their prices will be under scrutiny as consumers and media watch for gouging. Knowing the governor could regulate prices should prevent merchants from gouging the public, said Mike O'Connor, the group's president.

    "We would strongly urge the governor if he was concerned, or if there was evidence that anyone had taken advantage, that he use that power," he said.

    Consumer advocates in the office had received few complaints yesterday as customers braced for the storm. Farm Fresh, Lowe's and Home Depot are among retailers that say they lock down prices when disaster looms so consumers won't think they're being taken advantage of, the report said.

    Any Farm Fresh employee caught inflating prices during an emergency will be fired on the spot, said Ron Dennis, president of the Norfolk-based chain, with 36-stores in Hampton Roads.

    "We just don't want to try to make a quick buck in an emergency," Dennis said. "It's a matter of trust you build with the customer."

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