Major retailers are closing locations because they can’t cope with shoplifting. How can small businesses possibly survive?

“Shoplifters Welcome” street art. (Photo: Antony ***)

The news that retail giant Walgreens is closing 5 more stores in San Francisco has hit residents and elected officials harder than the 10 which were closed before it from 2019 to date. Harder even than the 7 Walgreens locations closed over the previous four years.

Perhaps it is because these cuts are deeper, into longer-established locations or perhaps it is because the pace of store closures is picking up so alarmingly. 7 closed in the years before 2019; 15 from 2019 to 2021.

Walgreens, as a spokesman made clear, has had little choice in the matter:

“Organized retail crime continues to be a challenge facing retailers across San Francisco, and we are not immune to that. Retail theft across our San Francisco stores has continued to increase in the past few months to five times our chain average. During this time to help combat this issue, we increased our investments in security measures in stores across the city to 46 times our chain average in an effort to provide a safe environment.”

46 times chain-average security measures weren’t enough, however; nor was the addition of an off-duty police officer in one of the now-closing locations.

According the San Francisco Chronicle, one now-closed Walgreens location was reporting the theft of merchandise at $1,000 per day, everyday.

It isn’t just Walgreens, either.

Other major retailers like Target have closed stores, increased security, reduced inventory, and drastically cut nighttime hours in an effort to cope with theft losses. That they aren’t achieving much success is becoming more clear by the day.

According to one recently released poll in the San Francisco Gate, 56% of people living in San Francisco plan to move within the next five years. 71% of survey respondents said that quality of life in San Francisco has deteriorated over the past five years.

Crime in America is, just has it always has been, a many-headed hydra of interconnected causes, myriad effects, misguided policies and critical failures in educational outcomes- for children in California’s public school system in particular. Nowhere is the school-to-prison pipeline pumping harder than in California.

Pinning down one cause for the rapid rise in crime happening in cities like San Francisco is impossible: Pinning down the major cause of this particular, marked increase in theft is easy.

In 2014, San Francisco passed Proposition 47, which decriminalized property theft under $950, making it a misdemeanor.

Causation isn’t correlation, though humans and even science, which is done by humans, often conflate the two. But the direct reality of Proposition 47 is hard to ignore. Blaming it all on COVID-19 doesn’t wash: Most countries experienced a drop in crime during the same period, with so many more people staying home than usual.

Nor are other cities, even liberal cities, faring as badly as San Francisco.

To California lawmakers in 2014- many who still insist Proposition 47 had nothing to do with the sharp rise in shoplifting in San Francisco- the idea that someone might occasionally steal $950 in merchandise and go unpunished seemed like a small price to pay, at the time, to begin to address the prison-overcrowding.

That retailers might lose $950 per day, everyday, might never have crossed the minds of lawmakers anxious to try a progressive reform long sought by activists and liberals.

It is crossing their minds now.

In California, and especially in San Francisco, there are now two camps of local Democrats: Those who will and and those will not voice the thorniest question of all.

If corporate retailers like Walgreens and Target are faring this badly, how can smaller operations possibly survive?

Aside from the question of the survival of brick and mortal retail sellers in San Francisco, there is the future to consider.

Who will move into these closed Walgreens locations?

The short answer, of course, is no one. To open a retail shop in San Francisco right now is to accept that anyone can walk into your shop and walk out with as much as they can carry in a garbage bag. Unless the stolen merchandise- on that particular occasion- is worth more than $950, there is very little local law enforcement can or will do about it.

There is another uncomfortable question brewing, too.

Much has been made about the so-named “Broken Windows” theory of crime prevention and deterrence. The basic theory goes like this:

When one window is broken in a building, others will soon follow if the broken window isn’t fixed. Worse than broken windows, other crimes will start happening in that vicinity. Soon, it will become run down and blighted by crime.

When people see a building with no broken windows, they assume there is a good reason; someone cares, there is a security system, police are present in the area. When people see a building with broken windows, they make the opposite assumption: No one cares, no one is watching, no police are around to stop windows being broken, or other crimes.

Allowing minor crimes to go unaddressed, according to this broken-windows theory, will lead to an increase in crime. Broken windows was the predominant attitude in law-enforcement and policy-making circles, even in very liberal cities like San Francisco, right up until about five years ago.

Fast-forward to 2021 and there are plenty of San Francisco shoplifting videos on the internet; more are added all the time. Everyone has a video camera, if not a movie-studio, right in their pocket these days. The perpetrators of these crimes don’t mind being recorded, either. Like everyone else, they have their faces covered and don’t seem remotely abashed to be filmed shoplifting.

In these stores, and in these shoplifting videos, there are other people as well- innocent bystanders you might say. They stand in lines, waiting to pay for their merchandise in the background, some gaping openly at the brazen theft.

Knowing the thieves will never face consequences, knowing they themselves will never be called to testify as witnesses in a court of law, knowing even private security guards have their hands tied and usually don’t even try to interfere to prevent theft:

How long will these paying customers, who are almost just good Samaritans at this point, continue to pay?

No one is even shamed for shoplifting anymore; steal something from Walgreens and celebrities like Cynthia Nixon and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will defend you on the internet against evil Walgreens like you’re some kind of freedom fighter. How many more people in San Francisco will soon decide it is their moral duty to liberate merchandise from the local retail oppressor “for the people.”

Stores don’t eat their losses due to “shrinkage”, which is retail-speak for “theft by employees or customers.” They pass those losses on to their customers in the form of higher prices without fail.

As the prices continue to climb, how long will otherwise honest people wait in lines to pay for their merchandise, when the social and legal cost of just taking it is zero?

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)