On the evening of Nov. 7, 2020, a man entered the Walgreens at Mission and 30th Streets and headed for the refrigerated drinks. He grabbed several bottles and stuffed them into his duffel bag, then went to other aisles and put more merchandise into his bag. A security guard working at the store closed and locked the front door to keep the man from leaving without paying for the items, but the man pushed the guard out of the way, shattered the glass front door, and escaped.
Shoplifting incidents at Walgreens and similar retail stores have become almost commonplace, perhaps especially so in the pandemic. The Walgreens at 30th and Mission reported 16 shoplifting incidents, including the one above, between early November, 2020, and early February, 2021, according to the Ingleside Police Station newsletter, compiled by Capt. Christopher Woon. Another Walgreens in the district, at 965 Geneva Ave., reported 30 incidents in the same time period.
Walgreens reportedly takes a hands-off approach to shoplifting. Interfering with a would-be shoplifter can lead to assaults, injuries and insurance liability; instead, employees are encouraged to call the police only after suspects have left the store, according to their posts on Reddit. But when rampant shoplifting has forced other San Francisco Walgreens stores to close, and so many residents rely on their local Walgreens for vaccinations and medications, that policy could leave customers scrambling.
“I don’t know Walgreens’ policy, but it’s almost certainly a policy of non-confrontation,” said Matthew Donahue, an assistant district attorney in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office. “Every manager has told me something a little different about what their practice is.”
Donahue has been working for the past few months with the ALTO Alliance, a consulting firm that helps retailers like Walgreens figure out how to deter shoplifting. Together they are working through a list of more than 100 shoplifting cases in San Francisco, some with identified suspects and many without, to support some of the hardest-hit stores and begin to prosecute repeat shoplifters.
The DA’s office has since issued four warrants for serial shoplifters and arrested two of them, including one who frequented the 30th and Mission Walgreens, and is working on a fifth warrant, Donahue said.
Identifying and locating shoplifters is tough, largely because the suspects are long gone by the time officers arrive, Donahue said. However, some shoplifters return so often that Walgreens employees learn their names. That information, combined with security footage, helps identify potential suspects, he said.
Walgreens’ media relations team did not respond to numerous requests for comment. However, Walgreens employees occasionally turn to r/WalgreensStores on Reddit to discuss the chain’s shoplifting policies and their ramifications.
“We’re supposed to wait until they leave the store to notify police, but what good does this do with no identifying information and a shitty camera system?” asked a Walgreens store manager posting under the name Nerdspice. “Why even try? I’m just struggling.”
Others posted fears that they could be fired if they tried to approach a suspected shoplifter. “My coworker, who was with the company 15+ years and took the bus to work, was fired over it. All she did was walk towards the person and she was fired,” an employee going by the name Belledawn posted.
According to data compiled by the San Francisco Police Department, 18 Walgreens stores across the city saw 94 shoplifting incidents between Sept. 1 and Dec. 31, 2020. The chain has more than 60 stores across the city, and some, including the one at 965 Geneva and others at 1300 Bush St. and 2145 Market St., are shoplifted much more frequently. In many cases, police don’t write an incident report, because the suspect has already left the scene, Donahue said.
It appears that shoplifting has become more commonplace during the pandemic, possibly as a result of more locals losing jobs and falling into poverty. In mid-November, Capt. Woon described a “rash of thefts and robberies” plaguing retailers across San Francisco, including the 965 Geneva Walgreens, where officers arrested two shoplifters on the afternoon of Nov. 12, 2020.
SFPD spokesman Officer Robert Rueca said the department doesn’t have any data on why these incidents have become so common. Rueca declined to make any knowledgeable officers available to discuss shoplifting trends, citing “staffing constraints,” and Woon did not respond to requests for comment.
Donahue noted that the issue of shoplifting “touches on a lot of the issues we’re facing as a city: homelessness, poverty, drug addiction.” Some shoplifters are only taking what they need for themselves; he described a man who went into a Walgreens store each week to take a package of toilet paper. Others steal larger amounts of goods and resell them to earn money to take care of their families, he said. His team is focused only on stopping serious, repeat offenders, especially violent ones.
Numerous shoplifting reports include threats of violence. In one incident, a shoplifter assaulted a fellow customer who began filming the theft in progress. In another, a shoplifter threatened a manager with a Taser for calling the police. In another, when a security guard attempted to intervene, the shoplifter lifted his shirt, revealing a large knife; he threatened to hurt the guard with it.
Frequent shoplifting incidents can make Walgreens employees and customers alike feel unsafe. At the same time, these stores have become a crucial part of our public-health system. This past winter, as more Americans were encouraged to get flu shots amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Walgreens reported “unprecedented demand” for those vaccinations.
Meanwhile, six Walgreens stores — at 2550 Ocean Ave., 4645 Mission St., 825 Market St., 2120 Polk St., 498 Castro St., and 5300 Third St. — will soon be administering Covid-19 vaccinations, according to a spokesperson at San Francisco’s COVID Command Center.
In 2019 and 2020, seven Walgreens stores have closed, including the one at 16th and Mission streets, some as part of the company’s plan to close a number of stores across the country. But the Walgreens at Van Ness and Eddy closed because it was losing more than $1,000 a day to shoplifters, according to the Chronicle.
It’s unclear how many losses these stores can take before they’re marked for closure, but Donahue and his team recognize that neighborhoods are better served if Walgreens and similar stores can remain open.
“We want people to feel protected, and we want these places to stay in the neighborhood,” he said. “And we want to respond [to shoplifting] in a way that is most responsive and protective to public safety.”