Grocers in D.C. deploy bag bans, receipt scanners in shoplifting battle

Grocers in D.C. deploy bag bans, receipt scanners in shoplifting battle

Giant Food stores in D.C. launched a ban on large bags. Harris Teeter employees check customer receipts at exits across the District. And at some local Safeway markets, departing customers now face an electronic gate that prevents people from leaving without a receipt.

The measures deployed in recent months mark an escalation of retailers’ efforts to tamp down property crime — a stubborn challenge that has eluded solutions nationwide. While clear data on shoplifting in D.C. is not available, viral videos of people walking out of stores with armfuls and carts of merchandise have unsettled some residents, adding to a perceived sense of lawlessness in the District, even as crime including theft — is trending down overall from last year.

In statements acknowledging the new rules and regulations, supermarket representatives detailed a reality that they said must be met and overcome. The changes were welcomed by D.C. police, who have increased their presence inside and outside retail stores, and along with prosecutors are more aggressively targeting shoplifting. But shoppers were divided in interviews over how the hardening of spaces so integral to their routines would shape their quality of life, with some finding the increased surveillance insulting.

“It’s oppressive, dehumanizing, I could go on and on,” Kelsey Buckner, 44, a shopper at a Safeway location in Adams Morgan, said about the gate at the front of the store Tuesday.

The offending infrastructure, graphite-gray and waist-high, stood sentry yards away at the self-checkout section, flanked by rows of impulse-buy candies and cold drinks offered to the diverse confluence of residents forced to navigate new security measures. The challenge for businesses is to make their store inviting but secure from theft; the same customers who might complain of shoplifters rifling shelves with perceived impunity might also chafe at the inconvenience of bag bans, receipt checks and gates.

At the nearby Giant Food in Columbia Heights, customers struggled to adjust to a big-bag ban that had taken effect this past Thursday at select stores in the D.C. region. While the company, which declined an interview request, said in a statement that “open reusable shopping bags” are welcome, duffel bags or those measuring more than 14 by 14 by 6 inches are not.

Customers who want to carry groceries home in larger bags must now leave their prohibited bags upon entering, check out and return to the front of the store to re-bag them — creating chaos when foot traffic surges.

Miguel Atkins, 38, said he first noticed the change when he went shopping at Giant’s Columbia Heights location over the weekend, and a security guard made him take off his backpack before he went inside. He reacted to the rule with resignation.

“It is what it is,” he said.

About a mile away in Adams Morgan, customers at the Harris Teeter said they started getting their receipts checked last month. A spokeswoman for the chain, which also has locations in Navy Yard and NoMa, declined an interview request but said in a statement that its new security measures also include prohibiting suitcases, oversized backpacks and roller bags. The statement said the new measures “will help us maintain a safe shopping experience and continue providing the best service and goods at competitive prices to our customers.”

Justin Tew, 38, who was shopping at the Harris Teeter in Adams Morgan on Tuesday afternoon, said the receipt-checking was “a little annoying, but it’s understandable,” because shoplifting and theft “seems like it’s so out of hand.”

Several shoppers interviewed at stores Tuesday said they felt shoplifting had risen — and said they had personally witnessed retail theft. It is difficult, however, to know exactly how pervasive shoplifting really is because D.C. police do not track it as a specific category. The department includes those types of crime in a broader theft category, and those crimes have remained stable during the first five months of this year, compared with the same period in 2023.

Thefts in D.C., excluding thefts of or from vehicles, increased by 23 percent in 2023, compared with the previous year.

Retail theft in D.C. has attracted national attention. The District was cast online as an avatar for dysfunction over barren shelves at a CVS in Columbia Heights that shuttered earlier this year. Other locations of the chain across the District have begun to lock up vast swaths of merchandise, requiring customers to request staff assistance to access goods such as toothpaste and toilet paper.

In September, Giant Food said it was going to check customer receipts and stop stocking certain brand-name products at its store on Alabama Avenue in Southeast Washington, citing high levels of theft and igniting a public debate about racial profiling in an area that is majority-Black.

In interviews, some shoppers questioned a focus on catching individual shoplifters and said D.C. leaders should instead prioritize improving the economic conditions that lead some to steal in the first place. Others argued the aesthetic of the security measure feels dystopian; at the Safeway in Adams Morgan, one customer said the gate reminds him of a prison.

Buckner said the gate “feels targeted” at low-income people and Black and Hispanic people. Columbia Road NW, where the store sits, is “historically a Hispanic and Black community,” and Safeway is known as the most affordable grocery store in the area, she said, adding that the hardware could make people unnecessarily fearful.

“I’m sure people who aren’t from this neighborhood [walk in and think], ‘Whoa, there must be some issue,’” she said.

Safeway also declined an interview request. In response to customer concerns that the gate feels racially targeted, the Safeway spokeswoman said that “all customers are subject to these security policies.”

Others support the increased security. David Ryan, a 59-year-old Adams Morgan resident, said Safeway’s gate “makes me feel like corporate’s doing something to help the bottom line, which is important, so our food prices don’t go through the roof.”

In response to resident concerns about theft, law enforcement and lawmakers in D.C. have recently adopted a tougher stance. The D.C. Council recently gave prosecutors more power in theft cases, making it a felony to commit more than one theft in a six-month period of items worth more than $1,000 in aggregate — a move that drew significant pushback from advocates for criminal justice reform, who argued that increasing incarceration for relatively minor crimes would not make the city safer.

D.C. Police Cmdr. Colin Hall, who runs the First District station, said he thinks these changes have been effective. Authorities are seeing fewer images of store shelves emptied of merchandise, which he attributed to more focused police attention to the issue, more enforcement from prosecutors and the new laws. He noted that one retail theft suspect was recently sentenced to 200 days in jail, a significant move that may make a person “think twice about going into a store and stealing like that again.”

Hall, whose district includes retail-heavy areas such as the blocks around Capital One Arena, Navy Yard and NoMa, also said grocery stores’ new security measures could help slow quick escapes and increase the odds of shoplifters being caught.

He said mass shoplifting has a “huge impact” on the city.

“We want the community to feels safe going to these stores,” he said, “and we need these stores to thrive.”

Aaron Wiener contributed to this report.

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