After mob thefts, Black Friday offers glimmers of hope for retailers

Shoppers hunted for deals amidst heightened security

A week after the dramatic mob retail thefts in Union Square, The City’s premier shopping district came back to life — albeit not the same as before.

Just like every other Black Friday, the Westfield San Francisco Centre, Macy’s and other department stores were decked out in holiday decor. But this year, the area was pockmarked by boarded up storefronts, and police officers milled about on nearly every street corner. Cars poured into city-owned garages, which are offering two hours of free parking through the end of the year as part of a campaign to revive the neighborhood.

By mid-morning on Friday, sidewalks started to fill, and lines began to form outside of designer stores. Still, some shoppers were taken aback by the scene.

“It makes it feel like things are still kind of shut down,” Aaron Hanibal, a visitor from Oregon who was waiting to ride the Cable Car, said of all of the boarded up windows. Others noted that it was hard to know which stores were open and which were shuttered.

But tourists still enjoyed themselves. Eva, a visitor from Germany who gave only her first name, said San Francisco is “much nicer than LA. There are lots of stores and nice neighborhoods to walk in.” She wasn’t aware of the thefts last week, and thought the boarded up windows were due to construction or recent protests.

It’s still too early to say whether Black Friday will help turn the tide for a neighborhood that was already struggling from a slow recovery of the tourism industry, and a spate of flagship store closures. By late morning, staff at several Union Square shops reported similar foot traffic to an ordinary weekend day, adding that the district isn’t typically known for crack-of-dawn door-buster sales on Black Friday.

These days, boarded up storefronts are about as common as empty ones around Union Square. While retail vacancies have been a challenge since the pandemic struck, over the past week, many stores have installed plywood over their windows to prevent “smash-and-grab” thefts like the one at Louis Vuitton last Friday.

The net result is a less-than-stimulating window shopping experience. The four storefronts on the corner of Grant and Post offer an illustrative example. Harry Winston and Dior are open for business, but with windows boarded up. Cartier’s window display is visible, with diamond encrusted watches propped up against red backdrops. On the final corner, an empty storefront’s windows are plastered with “For Lease” signs.

At Louis Vuitton, the business that saw the worst of last Friday’s thefts, about a dozen people gathered in front of the blacked out windows 15 minutes before its 11am opening Friday. Shoppers wishing to enter the store needed to scan a QR code to sign up for a digital line. By opening, the wait time to get in was about half an hour. Lines were beginning to form outside of other designer boutiques as well, many of which had implemented similar security measures.

Lisa White, a visitor from Memphis, was surprised to see so many stores boarded up when she arrived in San Francisco. She learned about last week’s thefts while waiting to be let into the Louis Vuitton store. Overall, Union Square “seems pretty safe,” she said, “but there aren’t as many people as I’d expect.”

Across town at Stonestown Galleria, a major shopping mall on San Francisco’s west side, Black Friday didn’t come with the packed parking lots and long lines that it drew prior to the pandemic. With Cyber Monday just around the corner, many shoppers are likely avoiding the crowds this year as COVID-19 concerns persist. Nationally, online retail sales increased from 11% to 14% during the pandemic, according to the U.S Department of Commerce.

John Adupw, who worked security in front of a Victoria’s Secret on Friday morning, said overall traffic had been slow. It was a refreshing change of pace from when he’s worked security on the major shopping days in places like downtown San Francisco and Union Square.

“Before, when I would work downtown, it could get crazy and you’d have all these shoplifters. This is my first year at the mall here, it’s been quiet,” he said. “But it could get busy later on.”

Even though the pace of shopper visits didn’t match pre-pandemic levels, those who did make it out are expected to spend big. The National Retail Organization predicts sales this November and December to increase between 8.5% and 10.5% across the country, for a total of between $843.4 billion and $859 billion.

Business and political leaders are hoping to push much of that holiday spending towards the small businesses that have been suffering since the pandemic began.

“Directing consumer dollars to small businesses is critical to local jobs and our economic recovery,” said Maryo Mogannam, President of the San Francisco Council of District Merchants Association. “Shifting even one percent of our spending from online retailers to local retailers would generate millions of dollars for the San Francisco economy.”

Even with the lighter crowds, some small businesses beefed up security in anticipation for Black Friday.

Kimberly Pinto, the owner of Handmade in California, an artisan gift store located in the Stonestown mall, said her shop has been hit by retail theft a handful of times since opening in June, putting her on high alert.

“I’ll be sitting here making things and they’ll come in and just grab something. It just shocks me,” said Pinto. “Sometimes you can catch them, but there are people who put bracelets on and run out. All you can do is call security and they make a report. It just hurts, this is handmade.”

She was onsite on Friday along with about five other merchants who sell handmade goods through her store. “We weren’t sure if people would be trying to steal more if it was more crowded,” she said. “We’re here just greeting people and keeping an eye out.”

Pinto has grown her business from an idea, to a small kiosk at Stonestown, to now a full brick and mortar store, which she says is dedicated to her grandparents, who died of COVID-19. Between headlines about retail theft and ongoing pandemic concerns, running the store has had no shortage of challenges.

But Pinto was in good spirits on Friday as a slow but steady flow of customers came through the doors.

“Our local artisans and makers in Mexico are so excited to have their work here,” she said, “knowing that people are enjoying them and paying full price for them.”

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