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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shoplifting has retailers putting more items behind antitheft glass, but it’s driving customers away

Products are locked behind glass as a person shops at a Target store in the Harlem neighborhood in Manhattan on Sept. 28, 2023, in New York City. Citing "theft and organized retail crime," the retail giant has said it will close its East Harlem location next month along with eight other stores across the country.   (Spencer Platt/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Erin McCarthy The Philadelphia Inquirer

When Bryan Calhoun goes on a Target run, he avoids the store in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, just a few miles away from his home in Broomall, a western suburb of Philadelphia. He opts instead to drive to Wayne or Malvern, where fewer items are locked behind antitheft glass.

“At a place like Target, it’s fun to look around. You go in for toothpaste, and you end up with $200 worth of stuff,” said Calhoun, 55, an agency recruiter. Yet when seemingly mundane items like socks, body wash and detergent are behind a secure case, “it takes the fun out of the experience.”

Philadelphia consumers are often used to locked cases in pharmacies and retail stores. In recent years, some suburban shoppers say they have encountered more, too.

There’s debate among experts about whether the theft prevention tactics are warranted at a time when it’s hard to parse whether retail theft is actually on the rise. There’s little transparency from companies about how they determine which items are locked. CVS and Walgreens spokespeople told The Inquirer that they use data to drive these decisions but declined to provide numbers.

Among consumers, however, The Philadelphia Inquirer found consensus: The contraptions are an inconvenience, one that is often just another reason to buy those products online.

“I recognize there is a reason why those things have been put in place, but it just makes me not want to patronize that store,” said Andrew Lax, 38, of Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, who has shopped at stores in the city and suburbs for the past decade.

For him, part of the draw to in-person shopping is the ability to browse aisles and compare products.

“If I’m going to lose that experience anyway,” said Lax, a business owner, “I’m just going to shop online.”

Many people are starting to feel this way, said Peter Fader, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School who studies consumer behavior.

“You just don’t want the shopping trip to have that kind of friction,” Fader said.

In-person retailers are “already facing these online pressures,” he added. By locking up so many items, companies are “making it harder for themselves” to keep customers loyal.

Retailers say locked cases are ‘a measure of last resort’

Diapers. Face wash. Advil. Detergent.

At some Philadelphia-area stores, all those products may be under lock and key.

Retailers say it’s a deterrence strategy necessary to combat theft, some perpetrated by organized rings that then sell the stolen goods online. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner earlier this year launched a task force to go after repeat offenders and organizations, noting a 27% rise in reported retail theft in the city between 2022 and 2023.

“Different products experience different theft rates, depending on store location and other factors, and our product protection decisions are data driven,” CVS spokesperson Amy Thibault said in a statement. “We utilize a variety of different measures to deter or prevent theft and locking a product is a measure of last resort.”

Across the country, political figures such as Eric Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have pointed to the locked cases in drug stores to push for the tough-on-crime policies often favored by conservatives.

Meanwhile, some experts cast doubt on the scope of the problem, noting that retail theft data is unreliable, not uniformly tracked by law enforcement, and often unreported. And some retailers have blamed crime for store closures and underwhelming profits, only to retract their claims or have them called into question by independent data analysis.

The picture is especially unclear in the suburbs: Despite headlines about high-profile shoplifting incidents in some towns, state data on retail-theft arrests show the number of cases decreased slightly in Chester and Delaware Counties, and increased slightly in Montgomery and Bucks Counties, between 2018 and 2022, the most recent period for which the data was available.

Spokespeople for Target and Rite Aid – the bankrupt Philadelphia-based chain that has cited “local business conditions” as a factor in its recent decisions to close dozens of area stores – did not respond to several requests for comment from The Inquirer.

In response to written questions, Walgreens spokesperson Megan Boyd said: “Retail crime is one of the top challenges facing our industry today.”

“We continue to take measures, like installing antitheft devices, to deter theft and ensure safety and security in our stores,” she added. “These steps are taken in response to theft data and for that reason only, and these additional security measures allow us to improve on-shelf availability of products to customers.”

Lack of uniformity in what products are locked

Consumers say there sometimes appears to be no rhyme or reason as to why certain products are locked up and others aren’t. The amount and type of products can differ by store location.

At a Philadelphia Target near the Northern Liberties neighborhood, for instance, entire aisles, containing store-brand pore strips, CeraVe face wash, and every variety of toothpaste, were locked on a recent day, while more expensive body washes, hair care products, and medicines could be browsed freely without employee assistance. Advil, Tylenol and Aleve were behind small plastic covers that shoppers had to slide in order to pick up an item.

Meanwhile at a Target in the Main Line suburb of Wynnewood, the same common pain medications were behind antitheft glass, as were some men’s socks and underwear, while long aisles of more expensive skincare products were unobstructed. All toiletry items locked at that Target could be bought, barrier-free, at a Rite Aid in the same shopping center.

At a Target in Deptford, there were no locked cases, though some products, including hair and grooming tools that cost around $100, had protective packaging that can be removed at the register.

Earlier this year, Marcus Philpot was about to impulsively buy a car air freshener at a Delaware County Walmart – until he saw that the $2 items were behind lock and key.

Philpot, who owns a junk removal company, decided he didn’t want the product enough to call an employee over to unlock the case.

“It just took away from the convenience,” he said.

And it gave him an uneasy feeling.

“It just makes me feel like, ‘Damn, crime must be increasing,’” said the 32-year-old Collingdale, Pennsylvania, resident. “People will steal anything if they need air fresheners behind glass.”

Retailers risk driving more consumers to Amazon, other online stores

From a business perspective, it’s unclear whether the locking-up of merchandise has been effective since large retailers do not publicly share data specifically on theft.

More than 70% of shoppers said in a national Harris Poll survey that theft deterrents, including locked cases, made them less likely to shop at stores in person, Fast Company reported in November.

Taryn McNabb says she still likes to shop in person, though she sometimes opts for curbside pickup if she has her young children with her.

“We do Amazon but for things like toothpaste and shampoo and the stuff that is locked up, the stuff that I need, I like to do in person,” said the 37-year-old stay-at-home mom, who recently moved from Bryn Mawr to Pittsburgh. “If you’re getting shampoo or something, half the time it’s leaking” when you buy online.

Others, like Lax, have turned to Amazon’s “Subscribe and Save” service for his family of five, setting up automatic monthly orders of household products he used to buy at neighborhood stores.

When Calhoun sees an essential item is locked, he makes a note to pick it up at a store in a different area – or he, too, pulls up Amazon.

“Hey, I’m buying shampoo. Do I really want to wait 10 minutes for someone to come over” and unlock a case, he said he asks himself.

Calhoun paused.

“I’ve actually never called someone over to unlock the thing,” he added. “I just end up not buying it.”