Shoplifting has led many large retailers from Safeway to Walgreens to lock up items commonly targeted for theft. We know how retail theft affects those businesses, but the same can’t always be said for the consequences for customers, who aren’t necessarily accustomed to needing an escort to bring a bottle of shampoo to the register for them.
So, armed with a stopwatch, this reporter decided to go shopping in San Francisco to see how long it took to get basic—and frequently locked up—stuff.
Aisle 10 inside the Safeway at Market and Church streets is lined with gleaming, locked acrylic cases stocked with everything from toothpaste and hand soap to sunscreen and K-Y Jelly.
But you can’t just go up to the shelf and grab what you want; you need to press a button to summon an associate to unlock the case. What’s more, the employee won’t even give the item to you. The staffer must put it in a basket and bring it to the register, lest you waltz out the door without paying.
Before I could press said button, a local resident named Danielle did. She and I waited three minutes and 31 seconds for our toothpaste, at which point a worker came over and hurriedly pulled two tubes of Crest off the shelf, put them in a shopping basket and walked away.
It’s no surprise that liquor is a target for theft, and I’ve seen it locked up at other, quieter Safeways. As such, I figured they’d have the response time for that aisle down.
They did not.
Two minutes and 34 seconds elapsed before a worker retrieved a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red for me.
Among the laundry detergent in stock at Safeway, only the Tide Pods were inaccessible. They were unlocked comparatively quickly: An employee happened to be around the corner, so I only waited 20 seconds.
Wait times were a mixed bag at the Target inside the Metreon, a Downtown San Francisco mall, which sees plenty of theft daily.
I walked up to the allergy pill section, and before I could say “Zyrtec,” a manager reached around the corner and pressed the call button. Only 47 seconds later, a breathless woman clad in red wordlessly handed me a pink box of generic allergy meds.
I walked to the electronics section—no shortage of locked up, stealable things here, I figured. The only locked thing that would be remotely useful to me was an SD card, but this involved an extra layer of technology. To call for help, I had to wave my hand under a motion sensor. I waited for exactly three minutes before someone showed up to unlock the plastic door in front of the shelves holding the postage-stamp-sized file storage, possibly among the most shopliftable things in the world.
Turns out, Target locks up its Tide Pods, too. So I was in for a wait.
I waited a whole three minutes and 20 seconds for a bag full of laundry soap in packet form, probably about as long as it takes someone to asphyxiate to death after a Tide Pod Challenge. In their defense, the workers were changing shifts when I hit the button, and the store was understaffed.
In San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, the Walgreens on Fourth Street was quiet. Things were locked up, but the visit went smoothly, thanks, in part, to a frazzled, hyperactive manager whom I couldn’t seem to get away from no matter how hard I tried.
She got me a car vent air freshener 15 seconds after I pressed the button.
When she asked if I wanted anything else, I asked for allergy pills, and she got them right away—so zero seconds of waiting, really.
The furthest aisle away that had locked up items after that was deodorant, and the assistant manager only took 32 seconds to get me a stick of eucalyptus-scented men's deodorant.
Reflecting on my errands, I couldn’t help but feel conflicted by the anti-theft measures stores take to try to prevent theft but inadvertently make my shopping experience worse.
Specifically, Safeway’s policy to carry items to the cash register strikes an awkward tone of being both coddling and criminalizing. I felt as though I couldn’t be trusted to not spring through the exit as soon I had merchandise in my hand, but having them carry my things also felt oddly luxurious, like I was being given special treatment.
Maybe I should just shop online.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org