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Why Are Retail Stores Locking Up Basic Necessities?

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Crest toothpaste locked behind a plastic barrier. Prices of the items range from $4 to $15.99.
Products are displayed in locked security cabinets at a Walgreens store. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Read a transcript of this episode.

“Hmm! Is there any kind of button to call someone?”

Noam Shimon and I are at the Emeryville Target, peering at a plexiglass case, trying to figure out how to buy the Advil locked inside of it.

“Oh, here. ‘Need team member assistance. Please place hand below the sensor to activate,’” Shimon says.

He waves his hand below a little plastic square sticking out of the case, and then we stand there. For a while.

Eventually an employee comes along with a key, and hands us the Advil. We walk through the aisles, noticing what else is in the cases. All the pain relievers are locked up, as are the sleep aids. So are vitamins, toothpaste, toothbrushes and lotions. Laundry soap is locked. And condoms. Baby formula, too.

“Why are these things locked up?” Shimon asked Bay Curious. “Is it a reflection of the larger economy in my neighborhood?”

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‘A last resort’

Target representatives say the items in the cases vary city by city. They’re aware they lose some money when customers just leave impatiently instead of waiting around, but they don’t know exactly how much.

“No retailer wants to lock up product,” said Jason Brewer, executive vice president with the Retail Industry Leaders Association. “It is a last resort. But it’s only done when it’s impossible to keep a specific product on the shelf.”

He said people are stealing stuff that’s easy to carry out of the store, and easy to sell.

An entire aisle of goods locked behind plexiglass cabinets.
Household goods are easier for people to steal and sell and so have been a target. Stores are now locking more things up. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

When you think about it, basic necessities have a guaranteed market. A luxury item like jewelry might fetch a higher price, but everybody needs laundry detergent. So if you see it for half-price online … do you stop to wonder whether it might be stolen? How would you know?

“Right now, it’s way too easy to use a fake business address, made up a screen name, and essentially fence stolen product from an online marketplace,” said Brewer.

Currently, you don’t have to verify your identity to sell online. But you will starting this summer, when the INFORM Act (PDF) goes into effect. That’s after years of back and forth between retailers, who wanted stricter regulation of online sales, and online marketplaces, who didn’t but eventually came around.

Retail stores are losing money due to external theft — about $35 billion in 2021, which represents less than 1% of their total revenue nationally. That percentage has held steady over the last half-decade. But what has increased, retailers say, is the proportion of that loss that’s due to organized retail crime.

Organized retail crime is when groups of people steal, not for personal use, but to resell the items on a large scale — often online.

Brewer said there are interstate and even international networks involved. A recent federal report is full of complex diagrams, showing that the people who steal, the people who sell, and the organizers can be several groups in several locations. It even cites cases in which Central and South American organizations send people to the U.S. to sell stolen goods on the street, working as indentured servants to pay off the cost of their transport.

A blanket laid out on Market Street in San Francisco has shampoos, soaps, and other toiletries neatly lined up.
Organized retail theft moves stolen goods in such a way that even those selling sometimes don’t know they’re stolen. (Katherine Monahan/KQED)

‘A no-win situation’

A store employee, asking to remain anonymous, brought up another reason for the locked cases. She recently worked in a major Bay Area chain, where employees aren’t allowed to try to stop anyone from shoplifting.

“You’re just supposed to customer service them,” she said. “You can’t accuse them and you can’t call the cops but you can be like, ‘Oh, are you finding everything OK?,’ and basically just annoy them into wanting to leave.”

She said the policy changed after the store was sued for racially profiling a shopper.

“I would witness my managers just totally profile someone who wasn’t stealing. And a lot of those people were Black people or other people of color,” she said.

And it’s not only store employees who can’t intervene with shoplifters. Security guards usually can’t, either.

Their weaponry is mostly to act as a deterrent, said one guard, who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s not so much for the box of cupcakes walking out the door,” he said.

He said he’s not permitted to follow customers, or get in their way while they’re leaving, unless they’re being violent.

Andre Godwin, an armed security guard at another local store, said he can’t intervene at all. “I’ll get sued and lose my job,” he said, adding that shoplifters know about these restrictions and take advantage of them. “Like I told you, we’re in a no-win situation.”

Guards have killed shoplifters, or vice versa, in several cases across the nation — including one just a few weeks ago in San Francisco — when stops have escalated out of control. And that’s part of why stores are starting to rely more on devices, rather than people, to protect their goods.

Godwin said people are finding ways around those devices, though.

He said once employees unlock the cases and hand over the items, people still just walk right out the door with them. And he frequently sees people going through the self-checkouts scanning only a few of their items.

He described one tactic in which people take a picture of a barcode of one thing, print it, cut it out and then put it over the barcode of something else before scanning it.

“It will blow your mind,” he said. “It just doesn’t stop.”

‘A sign of the times’

Given the rate of inflation, it’s a tough economy these days — that is undeniable. And one of the places people find a way through is at the Laney College Flea Market in Oakland.

Hundreds of people are strolling around a big parking lot, some with their kids. There are food trucks, and a man pushing a little ice cream cart around. Covered stalls are selling things you might expect to find at a flea market: Tibetan jewelry, records, slightly beat-up leather coats. But there are also entire stalls full of really basic items, like toothbrushes and shaving cream.

“That says that people can’t necessarily afford to buy it in the stores,” said Faule Fields, who’s working at the gate. “So it’s finding ways out of major department stores and finding its way here, or people are buying online also, too, because I don’t want to say that everybody’s a criminal down here. But people find ways to supplement their income.”

Inflation has been especially high (PDF) over the last year for personal care products and household goods. But here, laundry detergent sells for $5. Deodorant is $2 for five. The same size of Advil that Shimon paid almost $30 for at the Target is sitting on a foldout table, selling for $10.

Asked why people choose to shop here, Fields noted that everything is tax-free. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said. “It’s a sign of the times.”

So, do the locked cases mean that the economy has gotten so bad that people have to steal basic necessities? Not necessarily. But it does mean that there is a market for cheaper goods. In economic terms, there is a demand. And people might be buying or selling stolen goods without knowing it.

Does that mean we’ll be seeing more of those locked cases? Probably. And it’s likely that more technology (and fewer people) will be employed by stores as they look to reduce their costs and liability.

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