Wendy Norris is a Denver-based editor and investigative reporter working on assignment for RH Reality Check.
The locked, clear plastic case bolted onto the grocery store shelf resembles a little condom jail. They can’t get out and you can’t get in unless somebody with a uniform and a big set of keys unlocks the door to freedom.
It’s well known that condoms are an inexpensive and effective method for preventing pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. But first you have to get them. Finding them in the store can require iron-willed determination and the tracking skills of a bloodhound.
Anecdotal reports began trickling in more than a year ago to members of the Prevention First Colorado Coalition that condoms were either being locked up on store shelves or stocked behind pharmacy counters. But no one from the coalition of reproductive health organizations and women’s community groups knew for sure whether access was truly restricted statewide.
"Our primary concern is ensuring that all Coloradans regardless of where they live or their income have access to the family planning tools and services that they need," said Toni Panetta speaking on behalf of the coalition. "We also recognize from a public health perspective that there are issues related to condom availability to help prevent the spread of STIs, HIV or AIDS."
So with a little help from 17 men and women I connected with via Twitter, Facebook and email, we scattered across the state in search of condom displays in grocery and drug stores. Our sleuthing took us to 64 chain retailers, convenience stores and organic markets in urban neighborhoods, suburban strip malls and rural towns in all four corners of the state.
Too embarrassed to trudge to the store and buy a box? One of our intrepid researchers found ample condom supplies on Amazon.com that can be mailed in a discrete box to your home or office within one day. The online bazaar even offers discount shipping and customer reviews of its prophylactics to ensure you are completely satisfied with your purchase. Though the ubiquitous "new and used" link for discounted items at Amazon is a bit creepy as well as the recommended purchases of action figures and the "Santa Buddies" video.
But if you need them now, our in-store reconnaissance found: We’ve got condoms. Lots of them. Right on the store shelves — though sometimes in some really strange places.
View Retail access of condoms map in a larger map
Just one of the 64 stores, we surveyed did not carry condoms at all. An employee at Sprouts, a natural food chain grocery in Boulder, said limited shelf space prevented the store from stocking such items.
The Downing Super, a store in a low-income Denver neighborhood that one enters through a metal detector, keeps its condoms behind the cash register so customers must request them. The store manager claims that theft problems forced the store to pull them from shelves. The Food Marketing Institute backs up his worry about sticky-fingered customers. Condoms rank 23rd among the 50 most frequently shoplifted grocery items.
The remaining 62 of 64 stores stocked a fairly wide variety of condoms but the quantity was much more limited in some lower income communities. In one Safeway store in a northwest Denver neighborhood with a high proportion of African-American and Latino residents, just three boxes were left on the empty shelf next to fully stocked displays of light bulbs and school supplies. Panetta expressed concern about the disparities and pledged to investigate.
While other urban retailers weren’t quite so short-handed the differences were stark between the quantity and type of condoms on the shelves in urban and suburban grocery and drug stores.
In decidedly more upscale Boulder, Colo., one can purchase a 12-pack of Naturalamb’s for $41.95 retail at Walgreen’s. Nothing says I love you like a $3.49 prophylactic which the manufacturer does not recommended for STI protection and one Amazon reviewer noted are "slimy, cold and smell strange" but gave it five stars for excellent sensation. Another Boulder store stocked condoms next to the cash register with the impulse buy items, like candy and butane lighters.
Whether the shelves are well-stocked or not, just finding the condoms can be an adventure in shopping.
Need a box of your favorite latex prophylactics? Besides the typical partnering with feminine hygiene products, try checking the bleach aisle where one busy Longmont, Colo., Safeway keeps its condoms. Going from natural to synthetic extremes, organic soap and pantyhose departments also seem to be popular places to stock condoms.
Wound care and diabetic supplies were also frequent neighbors of Trojan and Durex products. As was pairing them with diet supplements, vitamins and weight loss products.
Then, there’s the psychological retail approach with condoms placed next to shelves of baby food and stuffed animals. One store even combined their condom display with pregnancy tests and antacids. How’s that for marketing genius?
Believe it or not, there’s a real consumer science to how and where condoms are placed on shelves.
A 2006 U. of Connecticut study found significant differences in condom purchasing behavior of men and women.
Researchers created a mock drug store and placed condoms next to other grocery items deemed positive (health products like vitamins and nutrition bars), negative (tampons and antacids), sensual (massage oil and sexually suggestive magazines) and neutral (toothpaste, soap and cotton balls).
Men were significantly more likely to acquire condoms when they were in the sensual aisle than any other shelf placement. Though they were pretty immune and decidedly less self-conscious no matter where the condoms were located. On the contrary, women expressed more embarrassment in the sensual aisle and were significantly less likely to take the condoms there and with the negative product groups than any other place in the simulated store.
The researchers found that the conventional retail wisdom that stocking prophylactics near feminine hygiene products for women shopper’s convenience is actually nearly as big a turn off as shelving them near the hemorrhoid cream and adult diapers.
So to the Kmart manager in Loveland, Colo., where the condoms are in the triple-threat area — in front of the pharmacy window and next to the antacids and pregnancy tests — you might want to consider moving them for everyone concerned. The unintended birth rate in Larimer County is 39 percent and STIs are on the rise.
Where are condoms stocked in your neighborhood stores? Add a comment to this story with condom availability (on the shelf, locked in a case or in the pharmacy) and the name and address (street, city, state and zip code) of the store so we can build out our map beyond Colorado. And let us know what other products they’re stocked near too.