Carmen Medina, a manager at the Pioneer Supermarket on Saint Ann’s Avenue, said she recently watched a man put three large salamis inside his jacket. She confronted him, she said, and he pulled out a long knife.
“What am I going to do?” she asked. “I said, ‘Okay,’ and I stepped back.”
Retail theft is in the news seemingly everywhere. A Target in East Harlem is closing, and the company blames theft. West Coast supermarkets have modified layouts and changed self-checkout procedures. A Washington, DC supermarket has removed certain items, saying they are targets for theft.
Since the coronavirus pandemic, though, no New York City supermarkets have closed blaming retail theft. Instead, the stores—many of which are small businesses—have found other ways to stay in business.
At the CTown Supermarket at Third Avenue and 145th Street, roach traps and Tide laundry detergent are locked behind a clear cover. Bags of frozen shrimp are kept in the store’s basement until a customer asks for it.
Manager José Estrella said he observes people shoplifting every day. But he was quick to point out that most people in the supermarket are not there to steal.
“I’ve been at this store for 37 years,” he said. “It’s all neighborhood customers.”
Estrella said that customers are asked to leave large bags at the front of the store, but some prefer not to. Within minutes, a man with three large bags walked from the last aisle of the store out the entrance door.
“You see?” said Estrella.
Of course, he said, from observations like that, he cannot determine whether someone is stealing from the store.
About a third of a mile north, manager Oscar Rivera stood at the front of the Bravo Supermarket on Courtlandt Avenue. He said he also has to observe the sales floor, but in most shoplifting incidents, just asks the person to give back the items.
“Sometimes we call the police, but…” He paused and shook his head. “We have to give them a break. We just talk to them.”
Medina, at the Pioneer, also said she talks to shoplifters, calling herself a “peacemaker.” But she also stressed the importance of stopping them.
“If you don’t go after them,” she said, “they’ll steal the whole freaking store.”
Medina looked down and lowered her voice. “I hope it will be for them to eat,” she said of those who steal from her store.
Two blocks north, at the Shop Fair Supermarket on Saint Ann’s Avenue, manager Andy Torres said he is usually aware of people who shoplift. He said he understands some do it to get food when they have no other options.
“Look, if you’re hungry, come and ask me. We’ll figure something out,” he said.
Others, though, have stolen goods to resell. Estrella says that is the main reason for keeping items like the detergent and shrimp locked.
And while shoplifting remains a problem across New York and other cities, some doubt the depiction some retailers have given.
New York Magazine noted recently that, although Target blamed theft for the closure of their East Harlem store, the company is moving forward with plans to open several New York stores, including one in Soundview.
Meanwhile, a Walgreens executive said in January that the company may have overreacted to shoplifting threats.
Last May, Mayor Eric Adams introduced a new plan to combat retail theft created from a collaboration among government, community, and business organizations, among them the National Supermarket Association, which represents many grocers in the South Bronx.
Within the Bronx, according to the city’s data publicized in the new plan, retail theft complaints increased 60% from 2021 to 2022. Overall, retail theft complaints increased 45% across the city. But store managers said they frequently do not report theft to police, typically because response time is too long.
The plan has different strategies for first-time offenders and repeat offenders, which Medina says make up most of the shoplifters in her Pioneer supermarket. But for her, solving this problem is a matter of her business’s livelihood.
“Small businesses are the ones who lose,” she said.