By  on October 21, 2010

NEW YORK — Andrew Klein is the bedbug whisperer.

Klein coaxes the odorous insect with the scientific name cimex lectularius out of hiding and eradicates the infestation. He also calms panicked retailers whose stores are the unwitting hosts of the pests.

“The problem is in the growth stage,” said Klein, president of Assured Environments, a pest control company here. “Bedbugs have expanded 100 percent this year.”

Bedbugs wreaked havoc when they were discovered in Manhattan stores this summer and fall. Hollister in June closed its SoHo flagship. Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret in July temporarily shuttered stores at the South Street Seaport and 57th Street, respectively. When Niketown closed its 57th Street flagship last month, it took the unusual step of destroying the merchandise. Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s last month cited the parasites but didn’t need to close. The New York City Council’s consumer affairs committee took up the issue on Wednesday with a hearing on the Department of Consumer Affairs’ role in protecting consumers from bedbugs.

“The majority of retailers have been our clients,” said Klein, who declined to give names, citing confidentiality agreements.

Klein’s grandfather, Robert, founded Assured in 1934, exterminating cockroaches, flies, mice and the occasional rat from office buildings in Manhattan. His father, Donald, came into the business in 1964 and diversified the company by taking on residential properties. Andrew, who had been working toward a Ph.D. in European history but couldn’t find a teaching job, joined Assured in 1991. He caught the bug, so to speak, and talks enthusiastically about entomology.

“I went into the company by accident,” he said, adding that bedbugs have changed the nature of Assured’s work. “What used to be a boring meat-and-potatoes route-based business has turned into this very emotional immediate service,” Klein said.

Here, Klein talks to WWD about the bloodsucking creatures that have been both a bane and, for Assured, a blessing.

WWD: Are bedbugs really the scourge that the media has portrayed them to be?
Andrew Klein:
Part of what I’ve had to do is demystify the insect so we can bring the emotional levels down. The insect doesn’t cause disease. It’s purely an emotional nuisance. There was a great stigma attached to it. That’s because the insect doesn’t exist alone in nature. It feeds on human blood. That’s a creepy aspect. Bedbugs have a novocaine-like substance in their stingers, but they feed for a very short time.

WWD: Why bedbugs, and why now?
The reasons for the upsurge have a lot to do with the greening of our society. Over the last 20 years, the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] has taken away a lot of the caustic products we used to use. The products we’re allowed to use now are less effective in preventing the insects. In the Fifties, people sprayed DDT all around. [It was outlawed in 1972.] With increased travel and increased mobility, the insect was reintroduced into the city. Trucking and transport have been spreading the insects to retail sites.

WWD: What’s the most effective way to eliminate bedbugs?
If you use heat at 120 degrees, the insect dies in seconds. We use steam heat for sofas and pillows. We’ve been asked by certain retailers to steam clothing. We use dry steam heated to 220 degrees so the garment doesn’t get damaged. We recommend that retailers have whole racks of garments taken to a trailer and fumigated with Vikane, a gas that permeates everything, but has no residual effect on the garment. You can also put garments into a trailer and heat them.

WWD: Why are dogs so effective in finding bedbugs?
Canines have an amazing olfactory sense. The bedbugs give off a distinct effusion. It’s not evident to humans. We have six canines. Each dog has a handler that they live with. Our trainer on staff, Susan La Voie, used to train cadaver dogs. Many of the dogs are beagles. They just have a great temperament.

WWD: What can a retailer do to avoid an infestation?
Proactive canine inspections. Up to now, retailers weren’t thinking about it.

WWD: What can consumers do to protect themselves?
It’s a very good idea to put purchases directly in the dryer. You could also use a handheld hair dryer at close range.

WWD: How much does this whole business cost the retailer?
To inspect a smaller boutique we charge $250 to $500. Larger stores are $2,000 to $3,000. For remediation, which is treating and fumigating a small 2,000-square-foot store, it’s $5,000 to $6,000. Larger stores can cost $50,000 to $100,000. This is going to be a cost of doing business in our urban environment.

WWD: Have you ever had a personal bedbug encounter?
I’ve had my travails. I had a bedbug problem twice in my life. My wife was getting bit but I wasn’t. The second time happened [not long ago] after our fourth child was born. We realized that we had a bedbug problem after my wife came home from the hospital. She’s been through the gauntlet. She thought I was bringing them home from work.

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