Friday, March 30, 2012

A Rainbow of Crime: Orange Bottle, Blue Liquid, Black Market

On a dark evening, two shady figures meet in a deserted back alley.  "You got the stuff?" one asks, pulling out a thick wad of twenties.  "Right here," says the other, as he reveals a his stash of...Tide laundry detergent?!  That's right, Tide is quickly becoming the currency of choice for drug dealers across the country.  Talk about money laundering...

It's a fairly recent phenomenon, but over the past few years, the "Tide has turned," so to speak, and a rash of laundry detergent thefts has swept the nation.  For a variety of reasons, Procter & Gamble's blue, cleansing liquid has become liquid gold for drug dealers and thieves.  It seems odd that criminals would choose Tide as their new monetary system, but experts say it makes perfect sense--everybody uses laundry detergent, Tide is widely recognized, it doesn't spoil, it's fairly expensive, and it's nearly impossible for law enforcement officials to track.

Thieves have found a variety of uses for Tide, none of which have anything to do with cleaning clothes.  Some trade it for drugs or sell it to other dealers; others set up shop outside laundromats and resell it, and some sell it back to stores that are willing to stock their shelves with discounted, black market Tide.  Experts estimate Tide has a street value of roughly 50% of retail price. No word on whether criminals prefer Regular, Mountain Spring, Tide with Bleach, Tide with Downy, Cold Water Tide, or one of the many other variations.

Another reason Tide is a popular target is that, at least until recently, it sat pretty much unguarded in stores.  The Tide-takers had developed brilliant, well thought-out plans to get the detergent out of stores--the two most popular strategies involved having a partner sitting outside in a getaway car and either (1) loading a shopping cart and sprinting for the exit, or (2) grabbing a bunch of bottles and sprinting for the exit.  (I'm curious the courts consider the unfortunate would-be detergent thieves who get caught to be white collar criminals...)  These days, it's becoming increasingly common to find Tide locked behind glass or outfitted with electronic tags.

Though the whole situation is very strange, but Procter & Gamble has gotta be loving this--all of that marketing and brand building is really paying off. Tide is the undisputed leader in the laundry detergent category, as measured by sales and thefts. Experts have noticed that criminals haven't bothered sprinting toward the exits with shopping carts full of lesser brands like All or Wisk.  One interviewer reached out to a P&G spokesperson for a comment about this unusual rash of thefts, but her response was vague: "We don't have any insight as to why this has apparently happened. But if so it is unfortunate."

Much like the thieves, I'm not buying it.  This is a sweet deal for P&G--as drug dealers empty the shelves, stores are left with losses, and their only option is to call up P&G to place more orders for Tide to replace the lost inventory.  This is a huge opportunity for any company that can come up with a widely recognized, expensive, tough-to-track product that never goes bad.  When stores have sufficiently secured their Tide supplies and put an end to the detergent theft, criminals will move on to the next product that exhibits all these qualities.

What company is best positioned to cash on this shift in the marketplace?  With some price increases, I'd say Hormel is sitting in a pretty good spot.  When I think about a recognizable product with an unlimited shelf life, one image instantly comes to mind:

And what's more difficult for law enforcement officials to track than SPAM?  There's not a person alive who knows exactly what it's made out of, let alone anyone who can distinguish one loaf from another.  So guard your Tide, stock up on SPAM before the price skyrockets, and pour your remaining life savings into Hormel stock.

Here are some articles with more details:

1 comment:

  1. So that explains why I want to punch people when shopping for laundry detergent at Walgreen's. I've always wondered why only the Tide was locked up...