The call that came in from a local Safeway one day in March 2011 was unlike any the Organized Retail Crime Unit of the Prince George’s County Police Department had fielded before. The grocery store, located in suburban Bowie, Maryland, had been robbed repeatedly. But in every incident the only products taken were bottles—many, many bottles—of the liquid laundry detergent Tide. “They were losing $10,000 to $15,000 a month, with people just taking it off the shelves,” recalls Sergeant Aubrey Thompson, who heads the team. When Thompson and his officers arrived to investigate, they stumbled onto another apparent Tide theft in progress and busted two men who’d piled 100 or so of the bright-orange jugs into their Honda. The next day, Thompson returned to the store’s parking lot to tape a television interview about the crimes. A different robber took advantage of the distraction to make off with twenty more bottles.
Later, Thompson reviewed weeks’ worth of the Safeway’s security footage. He found that more than two dozen thieves, working in crews, were regularly raiding the store’s household-products aisle, sometimes returning more than once the same day and avoiding detection by timing their heists to follow clerks’ shift changes. Owners and managers of other area stores, having seen Thompson on the news, reached out to him to report their own vanishing Tide bottles. Since then, the oddly brand-loyal crime wave has gone national, striking bodegas, supermarkets, and big-box discounters from Austin to West St. Paul, Minnesota. In New York, employees at the Penn Station Duane Reade nabbed a man trying to abscond with Tide bottles he’d stuffed into a suitcase. In Orange County, an attempted Tide theft led to a high-speed chase that included the thief crashing his SUV into an ambulance. Last year, for the first time, detergent made the National Retail Federation’s list of most-targeted items. Says Joseph LaRocca, founder of the trade group RetailPartners, who helped compile the report: “Tide was specifically called out.”
As the cases piled up after his team’s first Tide-theft bust, Thompson sought an answer to the riddle at the center of the crimes: What did thieves want with so much laundry soap? To find out, he and his unit pored over security recordings to identify prolific perpetrators, whom officers then tracked down and detained for questioning. “We never promised to go easy on them, but they were willing to talk about it,” Thompson says. “I guess they were bragging.” It turned out the detergent wasn’t being used as an ingredient in some new recipe for getting high, but instead to buy drugs themselves. Tide bottles have become ad hoc street currency, with a 150-ounce bottle going for either $5 cash or $10 worth of weed or crack cocaine. On certain corners, the detergent has earned a new nickname: “Liquid gold.” The Tide people would never sanction that tag line, of course. But this unlikely black market would not have formed if they weren’t so good at pushing their product.
Shoppers have surprisingly strong feelings about laundry detergent. In a 2009 survey, Tide ranked in the top three brand names that consumers at all income levels were least likely to give up regardless of the recession, alongside Kraft and Coca-Cola. That loyalty has enabled its manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, to position the product in a way that defies economic trends. At upwards of $20 per 150-ounce bottle, Tide costs about 50 percent more than the average liquid detergent yet outsells Gain, the closest competitor by market share (and another P&G product), by more than two to one. According to research firm SymphonyIRI Group, Tide is now a $1.7 billion business representing more than 30 percent of the liquid-detergent market.
Before the advent of liquid detergent, the average American by one estimate owned fewer than ten outfits, wearing items multiple times (to keep them from getting threadbare too fast) before scrubbing them by hand using bars of soap or ground-up flakes. To come up with a less laborious way to do the laundry, executives at Procter & Gamble began tinkering with compounds called surfactants that penetrate dirt and unbond it from a garment while keeping a spot on a shirt elbow from resettling on the leg of a pant. When the company released Tide in 1946, it was greeted as revolutionary. “It took something that had been an age-old drudgery job and transformed it into something that was way easier and got better results,” says Davis Dyer, co-author of Rising Tide, which charts the origins of the brand. “It was cool, kind of like the iPod of the day.” Procter & Gamble, naturally, patented its formula, forcing competitors to develop their own surfactants. It took years for other companies to come up with effective alternatives.