Friday, July 12, 2024

The alcohol aisle in the Target in Cambridge’s Central Square, seen Nov. 13, is barricaded against shoplifting. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Until recently, anyone could walk into the Target in Central Square and buy alcohol off the shelf. There was no more physical barricade to a bottle of tequila than to a box of Froot Loops.

A surge in shoplifting in recent months – and bad days such as Saturday, when police tackled and arrested a suspect who tried to flee down Pearl Street – changed that, Super Target Liquor of Massachusetts executives told the Cambridge License Commission at the end of October.

There have been 178 reported shopliftings so far this year at the Target, with 66 of those listing “alcohol” as the property being taken – figures that may be higher because some incidents may not have been reported, said Cambridge police spokesperson Robert Goulston on Monday. That’s up from 63 reported shoplifting incidents through this time last year, of which 27 were listed as being alcohol thefts.

“We have not seen any clear signs of coordinated shoplifting ‘attacks,’” Goulston said, referring to tales of organized shoplifting and extreme smash-and-grab robberies spread since the Covid pandemic by some retailers and media. A report discussed Monday by The New York Times says that shoplifting incidents across most major cities are down 7 percent since 2019, before Covid.

Metal accordion barriers now fence off the alcohol at the 564 Massachusetts Ave. store, requiring staff help for customers looking to buy a bottle. A Target asset protection leader said there has been a 50 percent reduction in adult beverage theft since their recent implementation, though she did not have specific numbers for commission chair Nicole Murati Ferrer at the Oct. 25 meeting.

This year’s alcohol theft is 37 percent of the total, down from the 43 percent seen up to this date last year.

“The gates are currently up and operating,” said Brendan Jones, general manager of the Target. “Ultimately, you know, this is probably 98 percent effective. We’d like to get to something that’s 99 percent or 100 percent.”

Jones said the store is looking into installing plexiglass or another material where the accordion barriers now stand to fully block off all alcohol while remaining visually appealing.

“I would say this fulfills the spirit of the plan, and it is working,” he said. “But we could probably do a little better.”

Rebuilding against shoplifters

Murati Ferrer suggested putting the alcohol behind staffed registers where it could be handed to customers; the store’s self-checkout machines cannot be used to buy it. Managers said there simply wasn’t room to have beer coolers and other stock behind the counter with them, prompting discussion of whether the store could be reconfigured or renovated. “We’d have to analyze it, spec it out in terms of the merchandising cost, the downtime,” Target assets protection director Jonas Garcia said. “That would be a very, very significant undertaking.”

Having greeters at the store entrance could also be a deterrent to shoplifting, but the entrance isn’t always staffed, Murati Ferrer noted.

“The podium should be staffed over peak hours” from noon to 8:30 p.m., a target official said, as “a general representation of asset protection in the store as a deterrent.”

Sign of the times

A Starbucks coffee shop at 655 Massachusetts Ave. in Central Square closed in November 2022 after 25 years, with crime in the area identified by counter staff and a corporate spokesperson as a major factor in the decision. But Target doesn’t appear ready to throw in the towel ($4.50 from the Room Essentials collection in a variety of colors) despite reports that it is itself a target for crime.

“It’s a sign of the times,” a local official said. “It’s pretty common knowledge that’s where most shoplifting is happening” in the square.

Central Square attracts a high concentration of unhoused people, though that population hasn’t been named as the source of the spike in shoplifting. The square has been the focus of attention from city councillors and others looking for a way to return its status as “the jewel of our city” after an increase in homelessness, drug use and public intoxication, violence and aggressive panhandling.