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Key needed for Aisle 3


If you'd rather be in denial than be reminded that our society is crumbling, then don't go to stores like Walgreens and expect to be able to be an educated consumer by comparison shopping for self-care products like ear-wax softeners. They are harder to access than England's crown jewels. 

You must commandeer the Keeper of the Keys, officially called "Access Protection Coordinators,” to unlock the secure cabinet, which is about the size of a Chase Bank vault.  

The massive liquidation of hundreds of Walgreens and Rite Aid stores is proof that we have devolved into a new barbarism enabled by rationalized tolerance of shoplifting and decriminalization of mayhem. According to Senate testimony last year, thieves can steal a thousand dollars' worth of merchandise within one minute.

During the halcyon days of postwar American hegemony, every neighborhood had its own candy store, hardware store, fruit and vegetable shop, florist, bakery, movie theater and more. It added up to what we call now a "support system,” although when we use that term these days, the reference is usually to government bureaucracies and suicide hotlines.

Words like "community" and even "family" have been co-opted by urban historians and lexicon revisionists. But the proprietors of mom-and-pop shops were essential to the cohesion of community and family. Blood ties are not the sole or even the most reliable form of kinship. Even a corporate presence can prove integral to it.

Although the big-box stores and chain retail establishments of today don't as a whole have an intimate relationship with their clientele, some of their departments and staff members, such as pharmacies, often act like a mom-and-pop shop that just happens to be housed in a structure of enormous square footage.  

It is not always true that stores like Walgreens and Rite Aid and Target wreck communities like lobotomies wipe out personalities. It is sad to see stores die when they have assimilated the culture of the communities and genuinely served them.

Walgreens has seen a lot of history. One is visible in the background of a photo taken by U.S. Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen (not the iconic Eisenstadt image) in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945. It captures a drunken sailor in an unauthorized embrace.

I know a Walgreens pharmacist who advocated for customers who were at wits end trying to get prescribed life-sustaining medication but were rebuffed by heartless, inept or disorganized insurance companies. Sometimes it required dogged, time-consuming efforts to reach doctors. She acted like a dedicated patient representative at a hospital. 

But it wasn't even her job. Now nothing is her job. And she and her colleagues were abandoned by their bosses. If they have anywhere to go, it's not because of any help they were given.

Walgreens’ and Rite Aids' disinvestment from communities is a retreat from good corporate citizenship. The bad actors may not primarily be the shoplifters after all, although it sure seems that way, because the epidemic of store closures coincides with the scourge of decriminalized stealing.  

Closures are part of the cycle of business life, but so many over such an abbreviated time frame suggests something more than a natural seamless bowing out. Those contending there is no cause and effect would by the same illogic deny a link between a triathlete in peak fitness receiving a head shot from an assault rifle and dying on the spot. "How do you know he didn't have an acute allergy attack?" they would ask.

It's true that not only has the Internet done the stores harm, but so has overexpansion. Although retail theft has rocketed over 300 percent nationwide in recent years, Rite Aid is not going to let that statistic rain on their exculpatory parade. Their closings are "for a number of reasons … based on extensive reviews across the footprint of 2,500 stores,” such as "overarching business strategy, lease and rent considerations … and much more.” Muddy pretexts.

James Kehoe, former CFO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, speaking of the "pharmacy of the future,” said, "We are optimizing the model through our micro fulfillment centers, tech-enabled centralization of in-store activities and telepharmacy solutions.” This masterful word salad demonstrates the power of the English language to say something without saying anything at all.  

Its author forecasts it will save his company over $4 billion by the end of next year, so he's got his jollies.

One particular  Rite Aid in Manhattan lost almost a quarter million dollars' worth of merchandise to pilferers and poachers over just eight weeks. Some district attorneys view shoplifting as a crime of poverty and a rebellion against institutional inequity and are practically apologists for it.  They sincerely feel it their moral duty to deflect blame and deter a broad spectrum of the underclass from becoming "justice-involved.”

Rite Aid's former chief retail officer, Andre Persaud, quoted in Business Insider, explained "the environment that we operate in, particularly in New York City, is not conducive to reducing shrink, just based upon everything you read and see on social media and news in the city."   

A veiled and winding verbal tail-chasing that suggests this honcho is "call a spade a spade"-challenged.  

Of all crocodile tears, those shed by corporations are the most acidic and unmoving. There's a theory that Walgreens and Rite Aid  et al are not really all that bothered by the plague of shoplifting, because they are insured against it. But when insurance costs consequently increase, prices must be raised to offset it, and the price markup on most items sold at the downsizing pharmacy chains is quite small.  

Accord to The Street, a financial news and literacy website, the retailers simply "want to cut costs and return cash to shareholders,” pursuing a "disciplined, returns-based investment" in … portfolio simplification and repurchasing shares and boosting the dividend.” 

It's plausible that continual raids on store shelves by robbers might be lethal to its bottom line. It's also undeniable that other factors have contributed to the stores' downfall, such as the pugnacious cyber-octopus Amazon. But the mortal blows were not struck by "bad lighting,” "depressing interior,” "slow checkout lines” and "market dynamics,” as hypothesized.  

Just one year ago, Walgreens’ net earnings per share were more than double what they are now.  Nonetheless, Global Data Managing Director Neil Saunders implies that Walgreens' coup de grace was self-delivered, because it "plods along in an inert fashion, rather than proactively adapting to changing circumstances driven by an understanding of consumer needs.”

Customers spurned by the umpteen store closures left a gamut of opinions on a prominent blog.  One asserted that an inordinate fear of guns enables stealing, because lax enforcement of store security reflects the "glass is half full" view that the boosters aren't toting weapons since they know their mission will be accomplished without resorting to them.

It is inarguable that in most cases, sacrificing stock is preferable to sacrificing people. One customer blamed staff shortages and time delays retrieving eyebrow pencils from behind plexiglass did a job on customer loyalty.

Another proposed that the stores are literally paying the price for their folly and are liable for their own losses, because their patience with shoplifters "only makes individuals worse off by feeding their inner narrative that the world owes them something."

Last week, Rite Aid filed for bankruptcy. In an effort to refresh their enterprise and make it flourish in the future better than ever, they will probably be joined by others in a growing conga-line of giant retail collapses. As a child, I believed that bankruptcy is a state of desperation and that its victims should be pitied. Now I know that applies to frugal people hit with catastrophic medical bills, not to corporations, which smile like Cheshire cats at Chapter 11.  

Anyone who doesn't believe in eternal life should study bankruptcy courts and their love affair with corporations.

To many of their customers, Walgreens and Rite Aid are more than large convenient stores.  They are central marketplaces or hubs of gossip like those romanticized in novels and BBC period pieces. But when they unfurl their receipts, they're reminded they've just frequented a hyper-store, not a cathedral. They were suckers, not supplicants and mere purchasers, not pilgrims. And the displays are shelves, not shrines.

I'll miss Walgreens. It was a cornerstone of my ZIP code, but not the bedrock of our world. From news reports, that seems to be closing down too.

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