The Sexist

CVS: Where “Freed” Condoms Go To Die


At, CVS' Adams Morgan location, some condoms remain locked.

Three years ago, if you were to walk into a CVS store in search of condoms, you’d face about a 50 percent chance of hitting a brick wall. In 2006, 22 of about 50 CVS stores in the District of Columbia were guarding their condoms under lock and key. The glass-case treatment was reserved for neighborhoods with the greatest need for contraceptives—the wards with the highest rates of HIV.

Securing a three-pack of Trojans required you to alert an employee who would escort you to the glass condom case, unlock it, wait as you made your selection, then lock the case again behind you. The purchase could be further complicated by wait time, employee attitude toward condoms, and the customer’s level of shame—all factors which could deter a potential buyer from preventing the spread of HIV.

CVS brass, however, was more interested in protecting the condoms from those who refused to buy. The locks were in place to prevent shoplifters from “grabbing a whole bunch of condoms and running out of the store,” says CVS spokesperson Mike DeAngelis. “The stores that had to keep condoms locked experienced shoplifting to such a degree that our entire inventory was being wiped out,” he says. “There were no longer condoms available for customers to purchase.”

In the fall of 2006, CVS managers around the District began to reevaluate the policy. Twenty-one of the stores have taken contraceptives out of the cases, leaving only one Southeast stalwart with locked-up rubbers. But the managers weren’t unlocking of their own volition: They were just appeasing the activists. 2006 is also the year that students from the George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services launched “Save Lives: Free the Condoms.” The campaign, now administered through the Metropolitan Washington Public Health Association, was targeted specifically at CVS’ condom policies. Over the next two years, Save Lives formed a coalition with other public health groups, drummed up media attention, and then, store by store, convinced CVS to free its contraception.

Though locked glass cases are still employed in the pharmacies to protect precious items like soap, toothbrushes, pregnancy tests, and lube, condoms have been upgraded from “locked” to simply “inaccessible.” But with the help of some new technology and a little repression, CVS condoms are still hard to reach in the areas that need them most. According to GW professor Caroline Sparks, who helped launch the campaign, “it is a misapprehension that condoms are now unlocked in Washington.”

MEET THE "POWER WING." Post-emancipation, CVS condoms migrated from the glass case to the “power wing.” The wings, in shelf-talk, are displays that feature limited supplies of certain highlighted products like sunglasses, batteries—and now condoms. The wings are designed to encourage a well-intentioned customer to grab one pack of condoms, while preventing shoplifters from making off with armfuls.

Shumaya Ali, one of the original GW students involved in the campaign, says “limited” is the key word in the power wings’ limited supply. “At first we said, well, it’s better than having everything locked up,” says Ali. “But when we did a follow-up survey, we would go to stores and see the shelves empty, or see that many sizes were still not available.”

An empty power wing is on par with a locked case—it means that customers must grovel with a CVS employee to retrieve condoms from the back. The liberating quality of the new policy depends upon how regularly employees restock the merchandise. Access to stocked shelves also varies by neighborhood. A national CVS watchdog organization, Cure CVS Now, collects user-submitted photos of “good” and “bad” CVS stores, often determined by a neighborhood’s median income and racial makeup. In the photos, a sparse dairy case in Compton is slicked with brown and black liquid, while a Beverly Hills case is fully stocked with fresh milk; a Detroit freezer case is littered with gnawed sunflower seeds, while one in Rochester Hills, Mich., is sanitarily stocked with frozen pizzas.

Jana Baldwin, a current campaign member, says the stocking disparity is no coincidence. “What I personally found, and continue to find on my 17 or so visits to various CVSs around D.C., is that when there are the power wings in the deemed ‘high-theft’ CVS locations, they are not well-stocked,” she says. “Interestingly enough, when I have spoken with managers about why they are not well-stocked, many have said that it is not because there have been condoms stolen, per-se—it is because they want to prevent theft,” she says. “So it doesn’t really make sense.”

According to Ali, the move to power wings didn’t do much to solve the disparity issue, but it did help CVS address another problem: public relations. “It was a small step that showed we were getting through to CVS,” she says. “But it didn’t actually improve anything.”

MEET THE “CLICK-BOX.”

Though many CVS stores continue to tout the power wing, some have installed a more sophisticated contraption: the click-box. These clear plastic vending machines, which push out condoms at the push of a button, are modeled after CVS’ mechanism for dispensing razors. The device has streamlined the condom-selecting experience down to three simple steps: 1. Push the red button, 2. Pull the handle on the drawer, and 3. Remove the product. Some click-boxes have included an additional recommendation between steps two and three: “Wait for product to dispense.”

At CVS’ Columbia Heights store, some customers have had trouble waiting for the product to dispense. On a Friday night, CVS shift supervisor Dre apologizes for the store’s barely functional click-box, where red buttons rarely manage to push out the correct product. “Sometimes it gets stuck when someone sticks their hand in there before it’s ready,” Dre says. When the machine is broken, Dre is on call to unlock the click-boxes and retrieve the condoms. “It’s crazy, but that stuff gets stolen like crazy,” he explains. “I mean, I think they should be free.”

Even fully functional click-boxes are often monitored by additional store security. Many are situated right in front of the pharmacy counter, where whitecoats can watch your every move—or at least hear it. Pushing the red button triggers a loud grinding noise that makes the experience less than discreet.

Still, most of the time, you don’t have to explicitly inform an employee that you want them “ribbed for her pleasure”—as long as the condom makes it out of its cage. Campaign member Noraine Buttar recalls the consequences of reaching too deeply into a click box: “Someone who was working there walked by and snapped, ‘That’s not how you do that,’” she says. “That sort of reaction means that the process can still be very embarrassing for some people.”

The highly supervised, one-box-at-a-time method proved too liberating for one CVS store in 2007. Many click-boxes are fortified with additional locks, which can swing down over the case at the manager’s discretion. Save Lives: Free the Condoms staged a protest outside of one Petworth CVS when it found that the store’s click-box remained locked during business hours—meaning you needed an employee’s help in order to push the button to pull the handle to remove the product. According to the GW Hatchet, the CVS store unlocked the click-box in the course of the protest, but the store’s manager can’t confirm it: “I couldn’t talk to you about that,” he says. “We’re not allowed to talk to anyone about anything, regardless.”

MEET THE "GAG ORDER."

The Petworth manager was just following another CVS post-lock-up strategy. While competitors like Walgreens and Rite-Aid institute company-wide policies ensuring that condoms stay on open shelves, CVS has continued to delegate condom management to a store-by-store basis. CVS’ reluctance to institute companywide policies aside, the pharmacy has instituted at least one order: Employees are not to comment on the issue.

Save Lives: Free the Condoms encountered the gag order midway through its campaign. “We started negotiating at the national level, and while we were in the process of debating with CVS, lots of news releases were coming out about us, supporting our campaign,” says Ali. “Meanwhile, CVS was going behind our back and changing policies store-by-store—starting to put up the clear dispensers and power wings,” she says.

CVS’ strategy—eliminating locks while avoiding a larger discussion—lead to the swift emancipation of dozens of CVS stores. It also left Save Lives: Free the Condoms shut out of the post-lock discussion. “What we want is a comprehensive policy from CVS,” says Ali. “What they did was just take very small steps at the stores where they were pushed hardest, in order to avoid the press.”

Even as it rolled out the new devices, Buttar says, CVS refused to extend the discussion. After sending e-mails and placing phone calls in an attempt to open a dialogue with CVS, its communications team “started blocking our e-mails,” Buttar says. “I could tell what happened—they were coming back immediately with this message saying, “This address no longer accepts e-mails from your address,” Buttar says. Adds Sparks, “Historically, corporations that have consumer problems have two options: They can negotiate in good faith, or they can try to circle the wagon,” she says. “CVS has decided to circle the wagon, thinking that the whole thing would go away. But the whole thing has not gone away.”

At the CVS stores I called, store managers refused to comment on the state of their condoms, pushing queries to the corporate line—where DeAngelis, in turn, wouldn’t comment on individual stores’ practices. The information gap makes things harder for the Save Lives campaign, which must mount new inspections of CVS stores to ensure that the pharmacies aren’t backsliding. In February, Baldwin visited the CVS location at 2646 Naylor Road SE, where she found the click-box locked. Since that precaution can be added and removed instantly, Save Lives: Free the Condoms can never say for sure how many condoms remain locked. When called, that store’s manager wouldn’t discuss power wings or click-boxes, but he would offer one line: “We do not lock our condoms.”

DeAngelis says that the new devices have been effective in decreasing shoplifting—and activist attention. When asked how free-condom activists have responded to power-wing and click-boxes, DeAngelis pleaded ignorance: “I’m not aware that they’ve been in touch recently,” he says.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • mdesus

    yeah you can either lock up the condoms, or you can take the shitty stuff you had behind behind the counter, and clear some space for condoms. hmmmm...

  • jenna

    i actually believe that condoms are locked up to prevent theft instead of being some sort of moral pushing thing (like target does with birth control), but i think it would be helpful to push an alternative when demanding stores to unlock condoms- namely to put those electronic sticker sensors on them instead of locking them up like they do with expensive hair products. is this also what they do to prevent theft of razor blades? i can never tell- they keep them in those weird dispenser things, but they aren't locked up, so i never understood why they were displayed like that.

  • http://www.nwtose.com Jana Baldwin

    Thank you so much The Sexiest! I think you clearly have an idea of the countless hours and hours and hours that Save Lives Free the Condoms has put into this cause. . . here is the BOTTOM LINE. . . whether people will be offended or not they need to hear it- the click boxes are almost ALL in predominantly populated black areas in DC. Here is the issue, after speaking to countless managers at various CVS's who of course at the time I was just merely having a conversation with and CONTINUE to have conversations will tell me that in the "white" CVS's condoms are stolen just as much. What I think is the most interesting is how at the CVS closer to where I live by GW University they sell $50 shampoo- and that is not in a Click-box or locked up. . . and that gets stolen. Just last week at the CVS on 20th and Penn over $1000 worth of electronic toothbrushes were stolen. Why do I know this? I ASK QUESTIONS, open my big fat mouth. The manager loves me. Most of the employees are in fact the ones that are actually being hurt the most by the policies.
    I suggest shopping at TARGET- they DO NOT lock up their condoms and their condoms are a fraction of the price.
    Also NO ONE NEEDS TO PAY FOR CONDOMS- the District provides them for free to any person, organization, or business you can fill out an order form right here:
    http://doh.dc.gov/doh/cwp/view,a,1371,q,602647.asp
    Thanks again!

  • suzanne

    Great reporting - should be in the print edition and in the Washington Post too. And good work, Jana and friends.

  • ClickBox Victim

    Good reporting. I can attest to the Click boxes, at least in the Shaving Dept. Those things break often than not because the mechanism and spring are completely faulty. Clearly they take the CONVENIENCE out of a ConVenience Store. Target, Wal-Mart, even Safeway puts them in the open. Jana is right though, you will find many things LOCKED DOWN in Black Neighborhoods and communities, while they are being robbed blind in other ones.

  • John

    Get a life please! Ive been in retail for over 20 years. People will steal, therefore condoms should be locked up just like high ticket value items. If you are not man enough to buy condoms, then you are not man enough to have sex.

  • http://www.nwtose.com Jana Baldwin

    Hey John. . . Condoms ARE NOT high ticket items. . . at CVS's. . . if you would like for me to go through every price then we can go there. In fact the 36 pack of condoms that cost $25.99 do not "FIT" within the size requirements for the CLICK-BOXES- so the most "expensive" condoms sit out in the open- explain that to me. IF YOU had READ MY ABOVE comment you would have seen that CVS fails to LOCK UP their $60 shampoo's, toothbrushes etc which ARE getting stolen and if you visit http://savelivesfreethecondoms.blogspot.com then you will get a great idea about what I am speaking of. .

    FURTHERMORE- ONE SHOULD NEVER JUST TRUST MEN to BUY THE CONDOMS. . .

    WOW. WOMEN need to buy condoms as well. John, YOU NEED TO GET A LIFE and GET REAL about DC and what youth and many people who should have to go through any kind of hassle to simply buy personal products in the District.

    EQUAL ACCESS for EVERYONE.

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  • http://www.mwpha.org Aisha Moore

    Good Job!

    John why is it that stores within blocks of each other lock up condoms and others don't? The reason......two of them are CVS and one of them is a Rite Aid.

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  • anonymous

    firstly, these condoms arent locked. if you "PUSH" on that thing that clearly says push and then pull that little glss thing down then you can get those. how do I this? because my store has that same case for razors.

    secondly, cvs reserves the right to lock whatever they want to lock up. we are a free company and if something is getting stolen, we will lock it up no ifs ands or buts about it. if you honestly intended to buy the condoms, you have a problem with them being locked up. i do have a solution for you though. if cvs "offends" you by locking the condoms then dont shop there. go to walgreens or wal mart or one of the thousands of other places that sells condoms. people act like we are the only ones in the world that sell those.

  • Morgan B

    You know, I only buy condoms at CVS, and they're not locked up, nor are they awkwardly located across from the pharmacy counter, like they are at most grocery stores. I love CVS, and I've never encountered a problem with buying contraceptives there.

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  • Dude

    You all are fools . . . it's not the job of CVS to make life easy for you. And they are accessible. No one is saying they won't sell them to you. All it requires is for you to be a real man or woman and buy it. In fact, I doubt people aren't buying condoms because there to ashamed and they're locked up. They're not buying condoms because they would rather steal them or they like going bareback.

    Question: Do you blame the victim (like the girl who gets rape or CVS stores) or do you blame the perp (the rapist or the thief) if the victim takes reasonable steps to protect herself/itself from harm.

    I'm going to buy more products at CVS to counterbalance your moronic behavior. How about your organization pay for the condoms that get stolen, so CVS doesn't have to take the hit.

    Jana Baldwin = Moron.

  • Glad I’m not Bald

    What an aweful thing that Jana Baldwin and friends are doing to a good company like CVS. It is so sad to see a store get taken down by a small group of people like Jana Baldwin. I live in Maine and we are like 99% white community and I can tell you I know of tons of quick stop stores that have condoms behind the counter. I know of many of big box stores that only have condoms at the checkout. And i know of even some drug stores that have them under lock and key. It appears that Jana Baldwin just wants CVS to have condoms put outside of the store with an honor box that says please pay. The bottom line is that CVS is not trying to start a race issue. Like anywhere you go if a store has an item that has a high theaft they need to have options to prevent these items from being stolen. Its a pain in the butt when i have to speak with a manager to buy an IPOD but i understand why stores put them under lock and key. I think its time for Jana Baldwin to get a real job and stop wasting Managers and CVS time and money. It appears to me that she has just dreamed up in her head that CVS is trying to prevent inner city young adults from getting condoms which is so silly. The bottomline Jana if you really want to make a differance spend time spreading the word on how to obtain free condoms i think you would set a better example. The fact that this website allows to publish such nonsense on the site is so crazy. I think i need to start a campain to request that stores stop locking up Prepaid cell phones. It would be a shame if someone who needs to make a call and couldn't all because these aweful stores are trying to protect the bottomline. Also the reason the stores don't lock up the $50 shampoo (not sure what kind you are talking about but whatever) is because these items aren't getting stolen. Why doesn't Walmart lock up $1,000 TVs?? humm maybe because these dont fit nicely inside jacket pockets. Also local police departments dont have time chasing down theives for $6 condoms. I got a idea Jana Baldwin why don't you start a fundraiser and open little condom shops that offer condoms that aren't locked up? Hummmm.. That sounds like a better waste of time.

    Goodness America what kind of world have we come toooo.

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  • laura

    clearly most of you guys have not worked in high theft areas, and i hate to break it to you but most high theft areas are urban areas. you have no idea how angry it makes the employees that care, when people steal. i can't believe that you have nothing better to do than go to cvs's and check to see if condoms are locked up. Is this your job? if so, how do i get a job like that? i bust my butt every single day making an HONEST wage and when people come in wipe out my store then make money selling the stolen items to mom and pop stores, it's a slap in the face. A slap in the face to every honest person that buys condoms or anything for that matter. maybe your focus should be on the theives not the hard working people trying to protect their stores. maybe you don't know this but managers bonus pools are partly based on loss. so the more people steal the less in our paychecks

  • karamel

    dear cvs:
    Court a sponsor to give them away or partner with your local (24 hour) clinic & shelter to make sure the people who NEED TO STEAL these items can get them for free.
    PROBLEM SOLVED.(and not just YOUR problem, a-hole.)

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