Indignity Vol. 2, No. 63: If nobody can shop, nobody can shoplift.


Indignity Vol. 2, No. 63: If nobody can shop, nobody can shoplift.
Photo: Lindsey Nicholson/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Shelf Defense

I WENT TO the drugstore because I was about to run out of sunscreen. I was about to run out of sunscreen because I kept not going to the drugstore. I kept not going to the drugstore because it's become a huge hassle to try to buy anything there.

Drugstores used to be the easiest places to shop. They were everywhere, and they were full of useful things. I would go into the drugstore with a short mental list, and then I would free-associate my way through the aisles, remembering other things we needed around the house until I had fifty or a hundred bucks' worth of stuff piled up in my arms, because I hadn't grabbed a basket, because I was only picking up one or two things.

It was never quite as easy in New York as it was in other places, because inventory was always messed up one way or another in the Greatest City on Earth, even in a major chain drugstore—stuff that never, ever, ever could be out of stock in the featureless exurbs just turned up as an empty space on the shelf, like regular flavored Crest toothpaste with no enhancements, or coconut Suave shampoo. Now, though, even when the things are on the shelf, you can't pick them up. They're locked up behind plexiglas anti-shoplifting barriers.

Once upon a time this treatment was only for small, high-priced items, like maybe razor blades. But corporate America has been running an ongoing messaging campaign about how gangs of nefarious people—who are, somehow, simultaneously supposed to be drug-addled homeless people and participants in a highly organized criminal network—are looting drugstore shelves from coast to coast, as crime soars in response to Democratic weakness and wokeness. Because everywhere has security cameras, there are enough videos for the media to back this up, with footage of people brazenly walking off with things, that the crime wave seems real and looming regardless of whether the numbers behind it work out or not.

So now there are more and more barriers, with more and more locks on them. The anti-shoplifting technology has become anti-shopping technology: if you see something you need on the shelf, you have to find the nearest buzzer and ring it, to summon a store worker to unlock the case for you. If you see something else you might need, locked away on a different shelf, you ignore it and just get out with that one thing you already have, because enough is enough.

You can't keep bothering the person who unlocks the shelves for you; they have too much else to do. At a drugstore I went to earlier this summer, the key keeper was also busy trying to troubleshoot the self-checkout terminals, the majority of which were glitching out of service for one reason or another, while the line grew and grew for the lone human cashier, who was trying to help an elderly woman do something complicated-looking with coupons or receipts.

Maybe shoplifting would be less of a problem for America's drugstores if they hadn't replaced so many human workers with self-checkout machines?

But when I showed up to buy the sunscreen, I seemed to be in luck. The worker with the key was already right there, closing up another shelf. I asked her for help in person, and she asked me which one I wanted. I showed it to her—unscented, 6 fluid ounces—down on a lower shelf. She paused.

Somehow, the store had set up those packages of sunscreen exactly on the line where two different plastic swing-up doors met, edge to edge. The worker only had the one key. She used it to open the right-hand door and lift it, and I squatted down and reached in and tugged at the upper right edge of the sunscreen box. It was pinned in by various spring-loaded shelf organizers and dividers and the neighboring sunscreens, and I couldn't work it loose.

How did they get it in there? the worker with the key marveled.

I told her I was wondering the same thing myself.

She shut the right-hand door, removed the key, and tried the left-hand one. I worked my hand in from that side, grabbed the package, and tried to pull it out. It wouldn't move. I had become part of the mechanism of the world's worst skill-crane game.

If I couldn't get the sunscreen out, I would have to go to some whole different drugstore, and who knew what I would run into there? I squeezed the carton harder, crushing it a little, and twisted at it. It came away from its slot, and I worked it up and across the top of the neighboring sunscreens, till it was in the clear. Then, apologetically, I asked the worker with the key if she could hang on till I wrenched out another one. Otherwise, I'd need to come back to the drugstore sooner.

[Previously in drugstore shelving.]

INDIGNITY is a general-interest publication for a discerning and self-selected audience. It could be YOU.