Did a NYC Urban Outfitters store ignore a bed bug problem?

by nobugsonme on August 1, 2012 · 6 comments

in bed bugs at work, canine scent detection, cedar oil, new york city, nyc, spread of bed bugs, Urban Outfitters

It’s not really summer until a major chain store in Manhattan gets bed bugs. According to Jezebel.com, the rumor is that Urban Outfitters on 6th Ave. in Manhattan has a bed bug issue — and that it has been taking the ostrich approach to dealing with it.

14th Street Store

Image credit: 14th Street Store by Eden Pictures, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.

Maybe it would be easier for retailers to deal with bed bugs if they — and the public — were hearing about other stores’ bed bug problems more regularly.

Back in July of 2010 — just over two years ago — this was the case. Manhattan branches of Abercrombie and Fitch, Victoria’s Secret, Hollister, Buy Buy Baby were just some of the big stores to be hit with bed bugs. All kinds of other locations — from ad agencies to major network offices also had highly publicized problems with bed bugs in that one month. Some companies, like Bergdorf Goodman, bravely and proactively inspected their premises in the absence of any evidence or complaints.

That bed bugs are a problem in all kinds of public places is well-known. According to this 2010 story on ABC 7, a survey of Pest Control Operators suggested that 40% of bed bug cases occur in stores, theaters, and other businesses.

Given these statistics, shame isn’t really an appropriate response. Springing into action is.

Abercrombie & Fitch attracted a lot of positive attention that same year for being proactive about bed bugs. When bed bugs were found at the Hollister Epic store, the company proactively searched its other locations — and quickly closed the one at South Street Seaport for treatment when bed bugs were also detected there. While no one wants to admit to a bed bug problem, being proactive and acting quickly once a problem was detected likely did a lot to raise consumer confidence in the store.

Other retailers may try to avoid any negative publicity by trying to cover up a bed bug problem. Or they may even just ignore it or deny it exists. And where bed bugs are concerned, this can really come back to bite you.

In Urban Outfitters Really Doesn’t Want You to Know About Its Bed Bug Problem, Jezebel.com suggests the Flatiron branch of Urban Outfitters may have had an untreated bed bug problem for as long as four months:

In March, a customer found a bed bug on the sales floor. After that, Urban Outfitters called in an extermination company, but the company’s canine inspectors couldn’t detect any live bed bugs on the scene. In April, an associate reported a confirmed bed bug outbreak at home but the store didn’t take any preventative action, even though all employees share a break room and locker space for their belongings. The next month — and into June and July — numerous employees started getting painful, itchy bug bites while in the offices, break area, and on the sales floor where customers buy their embellished goddess headwraps. Most of the bites appeared three in a row, as bed bug bites often do.

“As soon as it started getting hotter, everyone started getting bites, probably because everyone shares one communal office: bags, coats, everything goes in there,” said our source. “Employees told their supervisors they were getting bitten and asked what they should do. But they haven’t really done much.”

Memos show that the same exterminators returned to the store on July 9th. After detecting bed bugs, they used cedar oil (an all-natural option that only works if you get it on the actual insect) to treat the lockers, break area, office, “perimeter and crack & crevices,” but they did not treat any public areas of the store. When the extermination company returned on the 19th, dogs still detected bugs in two of the store’s offices. But instead of taking instant action, managers threw away some old furniture and told employees not to keep their bags in the office.

We don’t have all the facts (Jezebel noted the company would neither confirm nor deny the story), but if this sequence of events is accurate, there are a lot of potential issues here.

First, of course, it’s possible that the canine scent detection team may have missed bed bugs in March.

Although a 2008 study by Margie Pfeister, Philip G, Koehler, and Roberto M. Pereira suggested bed bug canine scent detection dogs were as much as 98% accurate at finding live bed bugs in a controlled setting, more recent research conducted by Changlu Wang and Richard Cooper (described in this PCT Online story [PDF] from 2011) found that in the field, the detection rate of seven canine scent detection teams tested ranged from 11-83%, with an average of 43%. That will surprise many pest management professionals and consumers who rely on canine alerts to tell them if bed bugs are present.

Canine scent detection can be a useful tool in searching for bed bugs. However, if a canine scent detection team tells you no bed bugs are present — or that they are — this is not necessarily so.

Jezebel suggests that employees were complaining of suspected bed bug bites in May and June, at which time nothing was done. And that no provision was made when an employee declared a problem at home — even though all the employees’ belongings and coats were all commingling in the office all day.

When treatment finally did occur in July, Jezebel says it only happened in the offices — even though a customer had originally found a bed bug on the sales floor — and then, the treatment is said to only have consisted of cedar oil spraying, and tossing furniture out.

Research (described here) suggests at least one brand of cedar oil has some value in treating bed bugs, but to my understanding this does not provide much of a basis for its sole use as a bed bug treatment.

And for what it’s worth, we don’t personally know of any reputable bed bug experts who are using cedar oil at this time as a primary or sole method of treatment for bed bugs.

When it comes to minimizing the cost and drama of bed bug treatment, there’s nothing like addressing the problem quickly. As Jezebel points out, Victoria’s Secret took action in 2010 after finding only one bed bug. This is probably the best course of action.

Update (8/1/2012):

Jezebel has now published a response from Urban Outfitters. You can read it here.

Note the following comment from Jezebel’s tipster– who suggests the store has not been as diligent as it claims.

Is the tipster just a disgruntled employee? Or is Urban Outfitters just spinning some PR?

Update (8/20/2012):

The “ostrich” metaphor may not be accurate in this case after all.

The blogosphere has long since left this story behind, but we would be remiss if we did not post a brief update noting that Bedbugger.com has heard from a pest control industry source with inside knowledge of this case, who claimed that as of the start of August, the affected store was being treated with appropriate pesticide sprays and dusts in addition to the cedar oil product that Jezebel had reported was being used.

The source noted that UO has been sending the pest control company into their stores “a couple of times a week” for proactive inspections and also that an employee apparently has a bed bug
infestation at home which has not yet been eradicated. (Again, this is all as of the first week in August — we’re not certain if this is the same employee that Jezebel reported had bed bugs back in April, or a different one.) The source claimed the PCO has even offered to treat the affected employee’s home without charge in an effort to resolve the problem.

If anyone else wants to get in touch and share their perspective on this one, you can contact us here.

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1 CarpathianPeasant August 1, 2012 at 11:21 am

Edit needed in paragraph 14 (if I counted right).

2 nobugsonme August 1, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Thanks, Carpathian Peasant!

Note: post above has an update.

3 CarpathianPeasant August 2, 2012 at 7:56 am

You didn’t find it…?

It should say “…suggested dogs were as much….” not suggested bed bugs were as much…. (or so it seems to me).

4 nobugsonme August 6, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Hi Carpathian Peasant–

Actually, there was a second typo, and so I corrected that one initially, assuming that was the problem, and missed the one you found.

Thanks again and sorry for the delay in responding.

5 nobugsonme August 20, 2012 at 11:31 pm

Update added above (8/20/2012):

The “ostrich” metaphor may not be accurate in this case after all.

The blogosphere has long since left this story behind, but we would be remiss if we did not post a brief update noting that Bedbugger.com has heard from a pest control industry source with inside knowledge of this case, who claimed that as of the start of August, the affected store was being treated with appropriate pesticide sprays and dusts in addition to the cedar oil product that Jezebel had reported was being used.

The source noted that UO has been sending the pest control company into their stores “a couple of times a week” for proactive inspections and also that an employee apparently has a bed bug infestation at home which has not yet been eradicated. (Again, this is all as of the first week in August — we’re not certain if this is the same employee that Jezebel reported had bed bugs back in April, or a different one.) The source claimed the PCO has even offered to treat the affected employee’s home without charge in an effort to resolve the problem.

If anyone else wants to get in touch and share their perspective on this one, you can contact us here.

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