Mellon Market manager Gesse Casteneda has a rule about unfamiliar customers: They are usually in the store to steal something. A man who entered his convenience store in Southeast three weeks ago provided a perfect example of the criminal behavior that fuels Mr. Casteneda’s pessimism.
The new customer asked for some tobacco from behind the plexiglass that separates the cashiers from the rest of the narrow, two-aisle mini-mart.
The man emptied his wallet and realized he was a few dollars short. Mr. Casteneda then removed the tobacco from the revolving door-type contraption that customers use to complete the purchase.
Mr. Casteneda said the man reached back into his pocket, pulled out a gun and dangled it in front of the manager, conveying that the situation could be handled in one of two ways.
“Sometimes we come out from behind the counter and try to manage [theft], like, ‘Hey, come on, let’s pay for it,’” Mr. Casteneda told The Washington Times. “But some orders, you know, it’s not worth it to risk a life.”
The District is second in the nation of cities hit hard by retail crime, according to a survey released this week by Forbes Advisor.
The survey found that the District recorded the most instances of retail theft per capita last year at 2,829 per 100,000 residents.
Shoplifting costs residents in the nation’s capital an average of $336 per person, according to the survey. Forbes Advisor said the District had 69% more retail theft than expected last year based on its share of the U.S. population.
The only people paying more for the costs of retail crime, according to the survey, were the residents of Washington state. Maine, Hawaii and Pennsylvania rounded out the top five.
D.C. Metropolitan Police statistics show that theft is up 22% this year, with property crime up 25% in 2023.
The CVS pharmacies across the city have become poster children for the rampant theft.
A CVS store on H Street in Northeast went viral for replacing its stock of toilet paper with pictures. Now, customers need to ring a bell so an employee can access the store’s inventory in the back.
Just down the way at the CVS on Bladensburg Road Northeast, a security guard said shoplifting occurs regularly.
Toilet paper, lotions and snacks are swiped by thieves — who are typically vagrants living nearby — and they proceed to walk out the door with little fear of consequence.
Stores can report the crimes to the police, but that requires staffers to tell officers exactly what was stolen and the value of the items, which can be hard to gauge when theft is so frequent.
The guard said the Bladensburg Road store is more tame than the CVS in Columbia Heights.
The guard said crooks walk in and clear out entire shelves at the store on the corner of 14th and Irving streets Northwest.
The same CVS garnered national media attention last month for having barren aisles up and down the store.
Bigger chains with locations across the country can absorb the “inventory shrink” from shoplifting, but large regional chains can take only so much.
D.C. Council member Trayon White, Ward 8 Democrat, said this summer that the Giant grocery store on Alabama Avenue Southeast lost $500,000 to theft.
The dollar amount, which equated to about 20% of sales at that time, has pushed the only full-service grocery store in the ward to the brink of closing. Weeks later, Giant announced it was removing big-name products such as Tide detergent and Dove soap to disincentivize thieves.
A security guard at the location told The Times that receipt checks have been implemented to try to curb theft. The store has only one usable entrance and exit for customers. Still, the guard said shoplifting remains a nagging problem.
Last month, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed targeting leaders of organized retail theft crews in her Addressing Crime Trends Now legislation.
Ringleaders could get up to 15 years in prison for the crime.
The ACT Now legislation would increase the penalty for those convicted of organized retail crime to up to 10 years in prison for property theft of $1,000 or more.
Mr. Casteneda said stationing a police squad car on the corner of Mellon Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue has helped calm crime concerns in recent months.
Still, the store continues to struggle.
Mr. Casteneda said finding the money to pay bills, employees and inventory orders is a juggling act each month. The store doesn’t have much recourse to bring in more money because it intentionally keeps down prices to accommodate its low-income customers.
When unfamiliar faces come into the store, Mr. Casteneda said, it brings problems from the streets to him and his employees.
“A lot of crimes happen in this corner — a lot of shootings, robberies,” he said. “But the shoplifting is also crazy.”