By Ed Hersh
If you’ve set foot in a Rite Aid, Duane Reade, or CVS drug store lately, you’ve probably noticed more and more products under lock and key, with more security guards visible. And branches of these chains are closing across the city, including the Duane Reade at 106th Street and Broadway, set to shutter this week, though employees are “not permitted to say why.”
Shoplifting is a national epidemic from which the Upper West Side is not immune. Mike DeAngelis, a spokesman for CVS, told WSR in an email that losses due to retail theft across the country have increased 300% since the pandemic began. According to the NYPD, citywide shoplifting in 2021 was up by 36% over 2020 — from 32,358 incidents to 43,864. Those included a range of crimes, differentiated by the value of the haul and whether a weapon was used, including, “petit larcenies, grand larcenies, and robberies that initially began as shoplifting,” the NYPD explained.
Here on the UWS, complaints to the 24th Precinct (86th – 110th) of petit larceny — which includes shoplifting — more than tripled in the first week of February, 2022, from the same week in 2021. WSR reached out to the commanders of both the 20th and 24th Precincts to see how the larcenies correlated with drugstore incidents, but neither responded.
Employees at various Duane Reade, CVS, and Rite Aid stores that we surveyed in the neighborhood agreed that there is no single cause of the shoplifting crisis; they believe the crimes are committed by both “organized theft rings” — who often then resell products online — as well as individuals, who run the gamut from homeless people, to students, to neighborhood residents. We have purposely left out the addresses of the specific stores to protect the employees’ privacy — and jobs.
At one CVS, we saw what the company calls “Access Protection Coordinators,” who roam the store, opening locked cabinets for customers as needed.
“Which is why I won’t shop in those stores any more,” a WSR reader wrote. “I’m not the thief and should not be treated as one. Better for the store to stop the thieves; they don’t want to, so they treat me and other honest customers like we are in the store to steal. Amazon doesn’t treat me that way.”
We spoke to an APC at that CVS, who told us he sees “the same people” shoplifting regularly. As in all the stores we visited, he said that unarmed security guards were instructed specifically NOT to confront or try to stop shoplifters, because they might be armed or violent.
“We’re more of a deterrent than anything else,” he said, and while he believes the NYPD “does their best to respond” he surmises that, with serious crime on the rise, “we’re not too high on the totem pole.” CVS’s DeAngelis told WSR, “We have security measures in place that are continually reviewed. We don’t comment on specific measures because we do not want to undermine them.”
At an UWS Rite Aid, a visible security guard agreed that he serves as a deterrent, and from what he can tell, “the situation has improved,” and the system of locked goods “seems to work.” There, huge swaths of shelves are behind locked plexiglass doors. He said he recognizes many of the perpetrators from the neighborhood, while others are students grabbing items after school and running out.
At Duane Reade, responses differed widely from store to store. On January 28th, at the 94th and Broadway store, as reported in WSR, an armed off-duty police officer working security broke up a fight between two men in the store. Once outside, one of them allegedly pulled a knife on the guard, who shot and injured the man, police said. Yet, at another Duane Reade location, an employee said there was no dedicated security guard.
While concerned about individual shoplifters, the national chains are also focused on trying to disrupt “Organized Retail Crime.” Brendan Dugan, a senior CVS security executive, told a Senate hearing in November that “an organized retail crime-related event is reported in one of our nearly 10,000 CVS Pharmacy stores every three minutes. CVS Pharmacy alone loses more than $200 million each year due to organized retail crime.” Dugan informed the senators that the average professional thief targeting them can steal $2,000 of merchandise in just 2 minutes, which can later be resold to consumers through legitimate online sites, such as Amazon marketplace.
A frustrated manager at an UWS CVS told WSR, with expensive items such as beauty products or high-end lotions, the manager believes the shoplifters “are absolutely organized crime,” stealing products that the manager said later show up for sale by street vendors. This manager claims to have seen repeat shoplifters come in with open backpacks and fill them with specific products and quickly exit. He blames the “lack of consequences” for the thieves’ repeat offenses.
Because so much of the information is anecdotal, Council Member Gale Brewer, in a quick telephone call, said she is working “to bring together the Mayor’s office, the police, the district attorney, and business leader to get a definitive study of where and when these crimes are being committed, who is doing the shoplifting, how many arrests have been made, and how those arrested are prosecuted.”