Products Locked Up at Potrero Center Safeway, as City Battles Property Crime

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Products behind locked cases at the Potrero Center Safeway. Photo: JACOB BOURNE
Products behind locked cases at the Potrero Center
Safeway. Photo: JACOB BOURNE

Numerous items are caged behind glass doors at the Potrero Center Safeway, dissuading some would-be shoppers from patronizing the store. “My family has stopped shopping there,” commented J.R. Eppler, Potrero Boosters president. “Too many of the items, including infant formula, that we went specifically to Safeway for, are now behind lock and key.”

Around 4 p.m. on a Monday last month the Center’s parking lot was near capacity; a steady stream of shoppers filed in both directions through Safeway’s doors. Inside, a security guard stood posted alongside an employee, both checking exiting patrons’ receipts.

Though the store was busy with shoppers, the aisles were clean, well-stocked, easy to navigate and contained fresh-looking goods. However, few store staff was visible outside the registers. About a year ago, the Potrero Center Safeway began locking up select items behind reinforced glass cabinets, including infant formula, soap, moisturizers, cleansers, dental care products, shaving paraphernalia, over-the-counter drugs, and alcoholic beverages. Long stretches of some aisles are behind glass.

A View reporter waited nine minutes to gain access to a single bar of premium-brand soap, as all Safeway representatives were otherwise engaged. Because so much of the aisle was behind glass, no other shopping could be done while waiting. During that time several calls for assistance in the locked alcohol section were heard over the intercom. It appeared that not all employees were able to unlock the cabinets; a special service call had to be made for designated staff with keys.

One customer, gazing at the many items beyond reach, said he’d only recently noticed the practice of securing merchandise.  Though he understood the need to lockup alcohol, protecting the rest seemed unnecessary, he said, especially as most of the items can be found unlocked at Walgreens stores.  While the store’s items were protected, its shoppers less so.  Unlike many retailers and grocery stores, the credit card terminal in the checkout lane hadn’t been updated with a chip reading device that’s designed to give consumers added protection against credit card fraud or digital theft.

No staff was available to answer questions at the customer service desk, though a bustle of activity could be seen in the employee-only room behind the desk when the door frequently swung open as personnel walked through it. According to the security guard, the Potrero Center Safeway doesn’t necessarily experience any more theft than other Safeway outlets in the City. He’d worked at various locations, and found that the issues are largely the same. The major difference is the amount of revenue stores make. The Safeway on Market and Dolores streets generates high revenues, and can justify employing a large staff. With numerous personnel roaming the aisles, there’s no need to have items locked up. In contrast, Potrero Hill’s Safeway brings in less revenue, with fewer staff, creating a need to prevent theft through other means. The reduced staffing also seems to result in longer waits for customers seeking products vulnerable to theft.

The Safeway employee working in tandem with the security guard offered that locking up products has caused a great deal of inconvenience for staff and customers, and slows down the flow of business. She mentioned that the cabinets containing alcoholic beverages are the only ones equipped with call buttons for assistance connected to the store’s intercom. Apparently, store staff asked that call buttons be added to other cabinets a year ago, with no response. She recommended that customers let the clerk at the self-checkout section know if assistance was needed to access items upon entering the store. However, she acknowledged that customers don’t always foresee all the items they’ll need until they remember at checkout time.

The security guard explained that he only calls the police to intervene in crimes committed at the store if he’s instructed to do so by management.  So far, the incidents he’s had to deal with are petty thefts that the police aren’t usually notified about. If the police are called, it’s often due to domestic disputes or disorderly conduct, but he emphasized that the store is generally safe and that patrons needn’t worry about their personal safety when shopping there.

Numerous media outlets have covered the continuing escalation of property crime in San Francisco, notably an April 24 New York Times article that cited data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicating that San Francisco has the highest property crime rate of the nation’s largest cities. Although a March 18 San Francisco Chronicle article blamed the statewide passage of Proposition 47 for the increase in property crime incidences, not everyone agrees with that assessment.

“Neither the data nor the changes Prop 47 made support the assertion that the initiative is responsible for an increase in auto burglaries or property crime,” stated Max Szabo, from the San Francisco District Attorney’s press office. “Prop 47 did not alter the crime of auto burglary, and the surge in auto burglaries began in July 2014, five months before Prop 47 was passed by the voters. Moreover, 47 was a statewide initiative, and property crime was actually down across the bridge in Oakland last year.”

Proposition 47 was passed by California voters in November 2014.  It requires misdemeanor sentencing for petty theft, receiving stolen property and check fraud of $950 or less. It also sentences certain drug possession felonies as misdemeanors. The Pew Charitable Trusts examined crime statistics in 23 states that enacted similar legislation between 2001 and 2011 and concluded that, “Raising the felony theft threshold has no impact on overall property crime or larceny rates.”

Not all theft incidents are petty or non-violent. As reported by SF Bay News on July 29, a clerk working at a store in Dogpatch was injured by an alleged shoplifter who was armed with a knife.

In response to demand for personal hygiene and infant-related products, GLIDE Memorial Church Freedom Hall, at 330 Ellis Street, recently began free distribution of soap, toothbrushes and deodorant Mondays from 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. The San Francisco Department of Public Health’s Women, Infant, and Children program provides vouchers for infant formula and staple food items at several locations, including the WIC Clinic housed at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital at 2550 23rd Street,  Building 9, Room 125.

Safeway corporate representatives wouldn’t respond to inquiries regarding theft-prevention policies.  Potrero Center management declined to share an internal newsletter that addresses security issues at stores.