“Customer service needed in the cough and cold department.”
“Customer service needed in the hair care department.”
“Customer service needed in the dental care department.”
Of all the myriad ways the pandemic has altered our lives, this incessant voice is hardly the worst. Yet it speaks to a deterioration – “a tear in the very fabric of NYC,” as one third generation New Yorker put it – that merchants, police and, now, the Manhattan District Attorney say they are working to reverse.
That voice is triggered by the press of a button in the various aisles of the Duane Reade on Broadway near 72nd Street. The company installed the system as part of an effort to deter rampant shoplifting. Products that were offered on open shelves pre-pandemic, are now kept behind locked plastic shields, freed only with a key carried by staff members.
The store decides what products to keep behind lock and key based on how often shoplifters steal them, staff members said, although these estimates are clearly imprecise.
As a customer chatted about shoplifting with one of the staff members, a woman started filling a large satchel with beers from the open refrigerator shelves.
The staffer and a colleague rushed down the escalator, but only to observe.
“They tell us not to confront them,” the staffer said, “there is no telling what they might be carrying these days.” Carrying, for those needing translation, being another word for packing, that is, concealing a weapon.
So the shoplifter was not interfered with as she filled her satchel and sauntered out. The staffers said she is a familiar visitor. She comes in to steal, mostly beer, four times a day, they estimated.
Smash and Grab
It is an illicit activity repeated all over Manhattan every day. Call it retail theft, shoplifting, smash and grab. Merchants say it is undermining their businesses as they try to recover from the pandemic.
“Too many people in public service believe it is a victimless crime that is ‘covered by insurance,’ but in reality, it is a dangerous and debilitating situation, that tears at the very fabric of NYC,” said Ken Giddon, whose grandfather founded Rothman’s Mens Clothing on Bleecker Street in 1926. The chain now operates two stores in Manhattan and two in Westchester.
Giddon made this comment as part of the announcement by the new Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, of a plan to deter shoplifting.
“We cannot accept a system where individuals who shoplift again and again cycle in and out of jail, just to shoplift again,” said Bragg. “Our society can’t function that way – it doesn’t help our shop owners, and it doesn’t help those individuals. At the Manhattan D.A.’s Office, we follow the data, and the data shows a small number of individuals are driving the retail theft crisis facing our borough.”
The prevalence of repeat offenders was illustrated by data showing that out of all those arrested, 18% committed half the offenses, Bragg reported.
He said his office would work to break up fencing rings, crack down on the online resale of stolen goods and seek “pre-trial detention, where appropriate” for serial shoplifters.
Stealing Wine and Chocolate
But the challenge of this became apparent shortly after Bragg released his plan. Cops said they arrested Lorenzo Marcus for stealing cosmetics and chocolates at a Duane Reade on Lexington Avenue. It was reportedly his 122nd arrest, and 50th this year.
Four days earlier he was picked up for stealing candles and chocolate from the Target on 14th Street near Stuyvesant Town. In May he was observed on video stealing wine and chocolate from another Duane Reade, on Third Avenue, police reported.
He has two felony and multiple misdemeanor convictions, authorities reported.
Bragg’s office said it would have sought to detain him on bail, but the rules did not allow it for such misdemeanor cases. The court let him go on what is called supervised release.
Like so many topics these days shoplifting has become politically divisive. Repeatedly through the pandemic, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive standard bearer, has criticized police for what she characterizes as their penchant to criminalize poverty by, to cite a case from earlier this year, arresting people who stole diapers and baby food.
No doubt there are people who steal to help their families.
Others are clearly stealing as a business. “It’s organized,” the staffer at Duane Reade said. “People send them in to steal and then they resell it.”
Which is why Bragg’s announcement seemed to walk a fine line in cracking down on organized theft while avoiding severe treatment of those who steal for their own needs.
“We need targeted interventions, tailored to these individuals’ needs and challenges, combined with accountability to ensure that there is engagement and compliance with programming and a stop to this cycle,” Bragg said. “That means services for those in need and the potential of incarceration for opportunists who repeatedly engage in commercial theft.”
Bragg, elected on a progressive platform to reduce incarceration, drew the ire of the business community when he took office, for, among other things, not seeming to take retail theft seriously.
“Serious and unexpected conditions occurred during COVID and the subsequent recovery including a dramatic increase in retail theft by repeat offenders,” said Barbara Blair, President of the Garment District Alliance, one of the neighborhood business group that worked with Bragg. “We appreciate the response of D.A. Bragg and his office to our concerns. Repeat offenders are responsible for an outsized percentage of crimes and must be stopped. Likewise, bad, one-off decisions should have a different path.”
From Chinatown to Washington Heights, merchant groups said that small businesses were the worst hit by the surge in organized retail crimes. Duane Reade and other chains can afford to increase security and install plexiglass and locks.
But smaller merchants often have no recourse but to curtail their business to reduce losses and safeguard their employees.
“For too long, we have seen our stores closing early as a way to combat the rising theft and other crimes,” explained Raymond Tsang, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
“There is no question that this illegal activity is having a devastating impact on the entire business ecosystem,” said Barbara Askins, president and CEO of 125th Street Business Improvement District.
The improvement district has created the “Harlem Hub” to coordinate efforts to curb crime on 125th St. and Bragg said he hoped that might become a model for other business districts.
“Clearly there is more work that needs to be done,” said Askins.
“There is no question that this illegal activity is having a devastating impact on the entire business ecosystem.” Barbara Askins, president and CEO of 125th Street Business Improvement District