In recent months, The Takeout has explored several increasingly stringent tactics retailers are using to prevent theft, each of which make shopping a more punishing experience in their own way. ALDI is trapping basic goods like cheese and meat in lockboxes and outfitting them with the kind of security tags usually reserved for 50" TVs. Grocery stores are putting sensors on carts so they lock up if you try to leave without going through the checkout lane (even if you didn’t find what you wanted and your cart is therefore empty). And some stores are taking away shopping baskets altogether.
But maybe soon you won’t even need a shopping basket anymore—because more stores are trying to prevent you from touching a single thing.
It’s not outlandish to imagine a near future in which we aren’t able to walk around and gather things in the store for ourselves: The goods will all sit behind a plexiglass barrier, requiring the assistance of an employee to access them.
Business Insider reported over the weekend that in a call with investors last week, Rite Aid’s chief retail officer Andre Persaud said theft has gotten so bad, especially in the chain’s New York City stores, that management is considering “literally putting everything” in locked displays, to “ensure the products are there for customers who want to buy it.”
Rite Aid isn’t alone in these desperate measures. Both Walgreens and CVS have made similar moves in their stores. Unsurprisingly, as these changes have been implemented, customers have started buzzing about them, and they’re not happy.
Writer Nichole Perkins recently posted a video on Twitter of items locked up at her Walgreens store, noting not only the strain this extra work must put on staffing, but the way it degrades the customer experience.
“I would love for someone to quantify the time spent waiting on staff, staff waiting on customers to decide, how much it pulls away from other duties, and how customer service overall suffers waiting for someone to unlock facial scrub,” Perkins wrote.
In response, journalist Amy S. Choi recounted her recent trip to the drug store in which she’d had to ring the customer service bell three separate times (and presumably wait for a staff member to arrive each time) to pick up kids’ cold medicine, lotion, and toothpaste. In other words, super basic stuff.
Writer, sociologist, and professor Tressie McMillan Cottom retweeted Perkins’ video and decried these loss-prevention tactics. “I’m used to class warfare of anti-theft devices but this was next level,” she said.
In responses to McMillan Cottom’s tweet, several people shared their own experiences with locked-up stores.
“My grocery store went a step further and just blocked this aisle off with bars on either end and parked an employee at the entrance,” said Twitter user @HellionofTroy. “You have to ask him to go get your Tylenol and deodorant for you.”
“My local Safeway recently remodeled to put every toiletry behind a case like this and also made it so you have to ask permission to exit the store itself,” said user @indiephlegm.
Some people appeared to defend the use of these anti-theft measures, sharing personal experiences with seeing theft first-hand or explaining that their stores had closed as a result of rampant theft. Conversely, many users said they won’t subject themselves to flagging someone down just to get their stuff for them. They’ll take their business elsewhere, they say, either online or to a different retailer.
Claims of an increase in theft appear to be legit (though, it should be noted, theft can’t be blamed for all downsizing of pharmacy chains). Data from the New York Police Department shows that petit larceny is up 43.6% compared to two years ago and 41.8% compared to 12 years ago. It isn’t just New York, either. A report from CNN in August highlighted organized shoplifting rings in San Francisco in which shoplifters stole entire shelves of goods from drug stores and then sold them on the black market.
But if the world has changed, either because people are struggling or because of organized crime rings, the way we operate within it is going to have to change, too—and that’s going to take more than some plexiglass.
I worked at a Rite Aid in the suburbs of Albany, New York in the early 2000s. Back then, nothing was locked up, and we had between two and three employees working at any given time: one at the register, another one or two on the floor either straightening shelves or putting away stock. One or both of those floor people were “on call” for backup should the register person need assistance or should the line get long enough that more registers needed to open.
I tell you all of this to say that when I go to my local Walgreens now, absolutely nothing has changed about how it’s staffed. There’s one person designated for the register. Sometimes they’ve put a bell out on the counter as they attend to other tasks. At most, I’ll see one, maybe two people on the floor, straightening or putting away new merchandise.
If that store is going to start putting everything behind glass—which it sounds like is an inevitability—are they also going to add staff, or perhaps change the way the store is set up so that we aren’t deluded into thinking we can just browse casually, go at our own pace, and select our items with the agency we once did?
One Twitter user said what many of us have been thinking: With such tight control on store goods, we might as well go back to the old pharmacy model of the early 1900s, where everything was behind the counter.
It’s starting to feel like not much else can be taken away from our shopping experience. I guess we’ll hope for the best—and the old-timey store with the ladder is starting to feel like the best chance we’ve got.