While much of our local media went full law-and-order mad the last two years over several high-profile incidents of retail theft — in particular a brazen theft at a Walgreens caught on cellphone video that a security guard was powerless to stop — it's always seemed disingenuous when chains like Walgreens blamed San Francisco and crime for their own store closures.
SFist has pointed out a number of times that Walgreens had announced hundreds of store closures back in late 2019 — a management decision, as Bloomberg reported at the time, in order to address a shifting retail landscape and perhaps an over-aggressive expansion in the previous decade. But as it came time to close these stores in 2021, at least as far as the SF locations were concerned, the company put out statements about how this was now because of "organized retail theft" and not their own balance sheet.
Their spin on the closures was bolstered by the media, and things like the infamous cellphone video below taken by ABC 7's Lynne Melendez, posted to Twitter with the hashtag "#noconsequences" and tagging former DA Chesa Boudin, which ended up making international news for some reason.
That thief, Jean Carlos Lugo-Romero, did end up facing consequences, by the way — he pleaded guilty and got a 16-month prison sentence during Boudin's tenure — and almost as soon as he got out, he was arrested again and accused of hitting the CVS on Haight and Fillmore, this time under our current DA's tenure. It's unclear where that case stands.
Now, high-profile repeat offenders notwithstanding, James Kehoe, the CEO of Walgreens said during an earnings call that "shrinkage" — the terms used by retail companies to measure unexplained losses of inventory — was actually significantly down in 2022, and it didn't seem to be the result of added private security.
As CNBC reports, Kehoe noted that while shrinkage hit 3.5% in 2021, it came down to the "mid twos" in 2022, and he said, "Maybe we cried too much last year. We’re stabilized, [and we're] quite happy with where we are."
Kehoe further said that private security hired to be a deterrent in stores had been "largely ineffective," and the company would be scaling back that expense.
"We’ve put in incremental security in the stores in the first quarter. Actually, probably we put in too much. We might step back a little bit from that," Kehoe said, per CNBC.
Security guards, like the one seen in that infamous video, can try to detain a suspect until police arrive — though they do so at potential risk of physical harm to themselves. Otherwise, there is not much they can do to stop a theft in progress.
As we know, the one category of crime where things are significantly up in San Francisco is larceny theft, which includes shoplifting — so it's not like this problem is going away. But if this was a crisis that was causing SF neighborhoods to lose pharmacies they need, Walgreens isn't really sticking to that story anymore.
Top image: The Walgreens at Cesar Chavez and Mission before it closed in 2021, via Joe Kukura/Hoodline