Photo: Etrogim for sale in the open air market in Campo de Fiori. by WoolSilkCotton. Please click to enlarge.
In Campo de Fiori, the huge open-air market for flowers, fruits and vegetables, you can buy esrogim like any other fruit. They sell for less than a Euro each. I took this photo last spring.
The differences between the etrogim sold in the open air market and the ones Chabad sells are as follows:
1. The trees that produce the ritual use etrogim are supervised to make sure no grafting is done.
2. The etrogim themselves are inspected and chosen to be free from damage.
3. Those supervised etrogim are then packaged, sealed and carefully shipped.
None of this seems to justify a 200x markup – until you realize etrogim dealers often live for a full year off the proceeds of their etrogim sales, and by the time the etrog has reached you it has usually passed through several sets of hands, with each set taking a cut of the profits.
In other words, a fruit you could otherwise buy for $5 or $6 dollars (that's including special shipping and the same level of kosher supervision that halav yisrael milk gets) costs you 50 times more because of the unique economics of this largely haredi business.