the Insiders


July 19, 2010 8:57 PM

Fashion, Retail

Does This Bug You, Too?

Oh, for the good old days, when getting the bugs out meant working through the quirks of an imperfect computer program....

Oh, for the good old days, when getting the bugs out meant working through the quirks of an imperfect computer program. Now, it means getting the bugs out. Literally. Disgusting, crafty bugs that can make themselves vilely inconspicuous, when it suits their purposes, the nasty little bloodsuckers.

Surely most people reading this have heard the industry truism “twice a coincidence, three times a trend.” Well, folks, after the third identification — make that the third published identification — of bedbugs in a mainstream Manhattan store last week, we now have a trend on our hands, and it’s no micromini.
Just when you thought things had started to turn around for the industry — people starting to shop again; luxury experiencing an uptick — along come bedbugs. Most of us have been reading and watching inflammatory television news features on bedbugs, how they’ve infiltrated hotels and apartment living to a stunning degree, how magical paw-tapping dogs somehow find them and how — once settled into the nooks, crannies and fabric folds — miserably difficult they are to expunge. Oh, and the bite welts — lovely.

We can’t blame the bedbugs. Like ourselves, they were put here by God or nature, depending upon your point of view, for a reason, which, scientifically at least, is the survival of the species. They seem to be doing fine in that department, thank you and Darwin very much.

So what’s being done to challenge them? This column was intended to convey what the industry as a whole and major individual retail organizations are doing proactively to prevent major infestations. Along the way, queries went out to a number of retailers and a lone designer house, Ralph Lauren, because he continues to set the gold standard for designer retailing.

On the upside, according to an entomologist from Rutgers, a massive retail infestation would be unlikely. “If you say enormous, meaning thousands [of bedbugs], that’s probably unlikely. Because once you find thousands, you see them very easily,” said Changlu Wang, Ph.D. On the downside, controlling bedbugs is very difficult for a number of reasons, including chemical killers that aren’t as strong as they used to be and the fact that the bugs can elude detection for a long time. “An infestation can be unnoticed for months, and in those months, it can spread,” Wang said.

So, what about industry prevention? A Limited Brands spokesman e-mailed that last week’s Victoria Secret problem was picked up in a preemptive check: “As a proactive measure, we tested our Manhattan stores. When we found small, isolated areas that may have been impacted, we immediately took action to resolve the situation.”

As for what others are doing, a day of asking around produced the conclusion that the prevailing industry response is ostrichlike, heads in the sand. Appalling. Perhaps, especially at the luxury level, retailers are afraid that addressing the issue publicly is tantamount to admitting that they have the problem — not necessarily the case. On the other hand, just ask any private school mom who has suffered thorough the indignities of a kid with head lice if bugs respect economic divides. They don’t (this writer has that on excellent authority).

That said, e-mails to retailers and the CFDA did not inquire about specific infestations. Rather, the focus was on preemptive measures, both industrywide and specific to individual organizations; plans should infestation occur; whether there has been specific contact with the City about the problem; anyone imagine a worse p.r. disaster?

“It has not come up as a concern from our membership, but clearly it has the potential to greatly affect the industry. The CFDA is ready to actively engage if the situation warrants it and is open to direction and advice from those who are experienced in this area,” the CFDA’s Steven Kolb answered via e-mail. If his response reads as less than enthusiastic, it came after a single e-mail query. Bergdorf Goodman, too, offered a guarded response: “We are currently in the process of formulating a plan.”

Lord & Taylor’s Brendan Hoffman gave a statement himself: “We don’t have a problem, but as a precaution, we have increased the frequency of our exterminator to once a week to ensure we have no issue.”

Others were less forthcoming.

Saks Fifth Avenue: “Unfortunately, at this time, Saks Fifth Avenue is unable to comment on your story.”

Bloomingdale’s: “Think we will pass on this.”

J. Crew: “Regarding your story, I don’t think we are going to be much of a help.”

Ralph Lauren: “We can’t participate.”

P.r.’s at Gap referred the inquiries to other p.r.’s who ultimately didn’t come through. Nor did Macy’s.

Meanwhile, my reporter and consumer selves find this perplexing, both of us thinking of all those umpteen-ply fall knits already in the stores, and the longhair furs, with so many bug-friendly folds and crevices. Can one conjure a better reason to shop one’s closet? Bottom line: Paying customers and prospective paying customers have a right to know if there’s a game plan. If yes, what is it? If not, why not?

I took the question to the ultimate damage-control guru, Howard Rubenstein. “The problem has already been found in three stores. It has to be dealt with,” Rubenstein advised. “First, a trade association should call on all of its members to scrutinize the stores. Each of them should go way out of their way after hours or before hours to see if they can find any infestation, and if they find one, deal with it immediately. As an industry, they should look very aggressive in trying to protect the consumer.”

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