A rash of reports from overly credulous news outlets would have you believe that retailers are locking up their detergent in response to the “Tide pod” meme. As proof, the articles show photos pulled from social media of soap products bearing security devices. These products really are behind safety glass in some stores, but it’s not because teens are inclined to poison themselves.
Like most memes, it’s difficult to pin down where the Tide pod phenomenon beloved by teens first propagated, but the joke is this: Tide’s laundry pods look like candy, and the idea of eating detergent on purpose is funny. The trend has exploded. YouTubers with huge followings have bitten into the pods for views. A Florida confectioner started selling actual candy (called “forbidden treat”) resembling the pods. Tide even issued a PSA with football man Rob Gronkowski urging kids not to eat the real ones. Gosh, it’s really dumb.
Speaking to Gizmodo, Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) spokesperson Joe Martyak said that while there has been an alarming uptick in poisoning reports related to detergents pods in 2018, they have not advised retailers to lock them up. “That’s not a way we would recommend dealing with this,” he said. In total, the CPSC says that 10 people have died after eating the pods in the last few years, all unintentionally: eight seniors believed to have cognitive illnesses and two children.
So what would cause big box retailers to secure their laundry products? As a slew of reports from New York magazine, Priceonomics, the Associated Press, and Business Insider dating back to 2012 note, detergents are high-theft items. They retain their value well on the black market, making them an attractive target. As a result, many stores have had these items under lock and key for years. It seems that social media users are only just noticing.
“The theft of Tide products is an ongoing challenge for retailers. Some merchants are combating the problem by locking up certain products and others have repositioned goods in a prominent location to improve visibility,” Joseph LaRocca, the former vice president of loss prevention for the National Retail Federation (NRF), told Gizmodo via email. He noted, however, that “product accessibility improves the retail experience, so locking items up is not a go-to solution.” According to the NRF’s most recent statistics, laundry detergent remains one of the 10 most-stolen items along with more predictable goods like designer clothing and high-end liquor. (Also, teeth whitening strips? The more you know.)
LaRocca’s testimony echoes what a Tide spokesperson told Buzzfeed: “We do know that some Tide products have been in secure shelving in some retailers prior to the recent social media conversations.” But hey, post anything people will share, right?
In a statement, Walmart told Gizmodo: “No retailer is immune to the challenge of crime and Walmart is not exempt. The decision about which items are subject to additional in-store security is made on a store-by-store basis and often at the discretion of the store manager.” We’ve reached out to several other big box retailers for comment.
Update 1/17/18 5:37pm ET: Walgreens provided the following statement: “Many of our stores have had additional security measures in place for certain detergent products for a number of years. As with other select product categories, these measures were taken to help prevent theft, and were unrelated to more recent reports of misuse of the products.”