When I lived in San Francisco nearly a decade ago I developed a fondness for Walgreens – yes, the drug store chain. Walgreens stores were ubiquitous — 1.4 stores for every square mile – and they were extraordinarily well run. You could pop into a Walgreens and buy something without having to wait in line.

The great service was no accident. If there were more than two customers waiting to purchase an item, the cashier was expected to call someone stocking shelves or performing other duties to open another cash register. Unlike Duane Reade in New York City, which functioned like a branch of Motor Vehicles when I lived there, visiting a San Francisco Walgreens was always a pleasant, time-efficient experience.

Chicago-based Walgreens, which opened its first San Francisco store at 981 Market Street in 1937, has been in downsize mode since I left the City by the Bay. Shoplifting has become so rampant and brazen Walgreens could no longer profitably operate some of its stores. Jason Cunningham, regional vice president for pharmacy and retail operations in California and Hawaii, recently testified at a hearing that Walgreens spends 35 times more on security guards in San Francisco than any other city where it operates.

Jason Cunningham (LinkedIn)

I’m not a retail expert, but I know the business operates on small margins and that those security guard costs are hampering Walgreens’ profits. San Francisco is fast going to hell in a hand basket — many might argue it’s already there – and it seems reasonable to conclude that Walgreens might accelerate its retreat or pull out of the city altogether. It’s admirable the company hasn’t yet threatened to do so.

In addition to widespread and increasingly violent crime, San Francisco’s chronic homeless and drug problem is out of control. The city last year experienced more than 700 deaths from drug overdoses, compared to less than 300 Covid deaths. San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin is a major advocate of releasing repeat criminal offenders, which has contributed to the surge in criminality.

Drug stores provide a critical service, and Walgreens has served San Franciscans remarkably well for nearly a century. If I were San Francisco Mayor London Breed, or a member of the city council, I’d be losing lots of sleep worrying about Walgreens’ dwindling presence. Walgreens has been a great San Francisco corporate citizen and remained loyal to the city thorough numerous booms and busts. A diminished Walgreens in San Francisco is a much bigger deal than a corporate moocher like Twitter thumbing its nose at the city after getting generous tax breaks to expand there.

San Francisco Supervisor Ahsha Safaí at least understands the seriousness of the issue. “This has been out of control,” the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Safaí saying was the reason he called the hearing to discuss SFO’s shoplifting epidemic. “People are scared to go into these stores — seniors, people with disabilities, children. It’s just happening brazenly. We can’t just as a city throw up our hands and say this is OK. We have to come up with solutions.”

Ahsha Safaí

That Walgreens sent someone as senior as Cunningham to attend Safai’s hearing showed a certain respect for the city and its leaders. Safeway, which also has a substantial presence in the Bay area, couldn’t be bothered to have one of its executives attend. Instead, as reported by the Chronicle, the supermarket chain issued a statement saying that rampant San Francisco shoplifting was due to Proposition 47, which made thefts under $950 a misdemeanor.

Practically speaking, Proposition 47 made paying for sundry goods an option, and many local residents exercised the “take it for free” choice. Word has gotten around town that Walgreens employees are instructed not to intervene if they see a theft in progress, so stealing from a store is as easy and risk free as breaking into a car in broad daylight.

As noted by blogger Micah Curtis, in Walgreens’ home state of Illinois, a shoplifter can be thrown in the slammer for a year, even for a first offense. That would definitely make me think twice about shoplifting from a Walgreens in Chicago, even if I had the sticky fingers mindset.

Walgreens gets little thanks or understanding from local residents for still maintaining a substantial presence in the city.  When the company closed a local store because of a rash of shoplifting incidents, a group of citizens circulated a petition. Said one petitioner: “In the middle of a pandemic and crisis, we cannot allow profit driven greedy Corporations to further traumatize and abandon their responsibility to the community. Shame on Walgreens.”

The petitioner had it wrong. It’s California’s and San Francisco’s political leaders who have abandoned their community responsibilities. San Francisco residents looking to live in a progressive city where civic leaders are imbued with common sense, should consider moving to Austin.

Austin might also be a good place for Walgreens to expand. The company only has 37 stores in that fast growing city, compared with the 53 it still has in San Francisco. I bet there are many days when Jason Cunningham, the Walgreens executive responsible for California, would welcome an opportunity to join Elon Musk and the nearly 690,000 other Californians who’ve relocated to Texas during the past decade.

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