Want a free bed bug with your Urban Outfitters Navajo panties? Probably not. But if you shop at one Urban Outfitters in downtown Manhattan, you might not have a choice; the store has been dealing with the parasitic insects for months and refuses to take the issue seriously, even though two employees have confirmed cases of bed bugs in their homes and around a dozen associates have reported telltale bites since the first insect intruder was spotted by a customer in March. Experts say it would only take a few hours to correctly treat the entire store overnight. Why hasn't that happened yet?
A store representative told us that they could "neither confirm or deny" whether they had bed bugs in the store, but we've seen multiple memos confirming that employees of Urban Outfitters' Flatiron District location have been asking higher-ups to do something about the store's bed bugs for 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 asked Arnold Caspro, a specialist at Ecology Ep, what Urban Outfitters could do to get rid of the bed bugs once and for all. He said the problem was likely that the exterminators hadn't found the main source of the problem — perhaps because some cracks and crevices hadn't been sealed — and that the store should've closed down for a night to steam all its clothing and treat all common spaces long ago. It would only take a night of work to treat a store of this size, he said — meaning Urban Outfitters wouldn't have to lose a day of business.
"It's very likely that the employees are transferring bed bugs to each other," he said. When we told him that dozens of employees work in the two-level store, he said, "Oh God."
A supervisor did say they were considering a night time extermination in a memo last week, but why have they waited so long to set that up? Until they deal with the situation in a more serious manner, any staffer — or customer — could carry the bugs home with their pre-ripped short shorts and "tribal"-print leggings.
After a number of New York City stores experienced infestations in 2010, a survey found that 40 percent of bed bug problems occur in commercial businesses. That year, Soho's Hollister outpost, an Abercrombie & Fitch store in South Street Seaport, and an uptown Victoria's Secret closed their doors for fumigation purposes after issues with bed bugs. When the latter took action after just one bed bug sighting, the store released a statement saying, "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." An excellent call, given as most fashion retail customers try on multiple articles of clothing whenever they visit a store. Why isn't Urban Outfitters more concerned?
"It shouldn't be up to the employees to fix this problem," our tipster said. "I hope [this] gets this store the publicity it deserves and ultimately (and most importantly) a safe work space for Urban's employees." And its customers, too.
[Update] Urban Outfitters sent us this statement in response:
Urban Outfitters Hates Bed Bugs
Urban Outfitters is super vigilant about making sure our stores are bed bug-free, especially in areas like New York, where bed bugs are unfortunately an issue for everyone who lives, works, or runs a business. We take the safety and health of our employees and customers very seriously.
We employ a third-party exterminator to test for bed bugs at all our retail locations in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn on a monthly basis. We've had our 14th St. and 6th Ave. location inspected by exterminators and certified bed-bug sniffing dogs every month since September 2010, and twice a month since March of this year. In July, two isolated bed bug-related incidents occurred in employee-only areas of this store, and so we immediately implemented the treatment protocol recommended to us by our third-party exterminator.
Since this treatment, we've had multiple follow-up inspections, and have found no presence of bed bugs or bed bug activity. We hate bed bugs as much as everyone else and will continue to be proactive in keeping them out of our stores.
In response, our tipster says: "Some months they came. Some months they didn't. Even if they checked every month, once it was determined they had them they didn't take it too seriously."