This New York Magazine story profiles the popularity of Tide detergent. It’s such a hot product that it’s used by criminals in the drug trade. Since the bottles aren’t easily traceable, they aren’t a nuisance to steal and then resell in the black market. The money paragraphs:
The criminal cost-benefit analysis of a bottle of Tide is more straightforward. Most of the people stealing the detergent, Sergeant Thompson points out, are the same criminals who used to break into houses or mug pedestrians—male addicts whose need to feed their habits can foster a kind of innovative streak. “They are smart. They are creative. They want high reward and low risk,” he says. Theft convictions can come with a maximum fifteen-year prison sentence, but the penalty for shoplifting is often just a small fine, with no jail time. For the most active thieves, says Thompson, stolen Tide has in some ways become more lucrative than the drugs it’s traded for. “It’s the new dope,” he says. “You can get richer and have less chance of doing jail time.”
For stores, stopping Tide shoplifting presents unique challenges. Most frequently stolen goods—GPS devices, smartphones, and other consumer electronics—are pricey, light, and easily concealed. They’re also not routine purchases, which means they can be locked up until buyers ask for them. Bulk goods like detergent are harder to run off with, but they’re also bought by dozens of customers daily—lock those products up, and a store manager adds more time to his customers’ errand runs, potentially sending them to shop elsewhere. “Any time you secure something, it impacts the sale of that item at some level,” says Jerry Biggs, the director of Walgreens’ Organized Retail Crime Division.
Nor is relying on clerks to head off suspected thieves a realistic option. Cashiers and stockists, working for low pay, are often disinclined to confront a potential criminal. “People at the cash register don’t stop you,” says one of Thompson’s informants, an ex-con who shoplifted for years. “They just let you go past.” What’s more, stolen bottles of Tide aren’t easily traceable. Many merchants don’t record the lot and batch numbers for most grocery-store products, because that takes precious man hours. And Procter & Gamble has not made its own database of that information publicly available. Some stores have tried attaching tracking stickers to bottles to establish their provenance, only to find that thieves just wash them off.
As an aside, I am loyal to the Tide brand (the NY Mag feature touches nicely on brand loyalty). The current version I use to do my laundry is the high efficiency Tide with Febreze.