san francisco boarded shops
© Stephen Lam/The ChroniclePeople stroll past a barricaded Louis Vuitton store on Union Square.
As San Francisco approached the critical December shopping month, instead of holiday lights and Santa Claus decorations, dozens of downtown retailers greeted shoppers with plywood-encased storefronts and armed guards in the wake of mass retail thefts in Union Square two weeks ago.

Comment: These are just some of the many videos showing just how many people are participating as well as how brazen the robberies have become:

Around a half-dozen stores in the Union Square area were boarded up on Tuesday, including the Louis Vuitton store and others that sustained damage during the robberies. Other luxury stores such as Gucci, which Mayor London Breed said had an existing security gate system and wasn't damaged in previous robberies, had a guard outside as well.

It's a stark contrast from previous years when December in Union Square was marked by windows full of holiday ornamentation and the seasonal enticement of products that could fit under Christmas trees.

san francisco boarded shops
© Stephen Lam/The ChronicleWorkers board up a storefront on Geary Street near San Francisco’s Union Square on Tuesday.
Still, shoppers bustled under a bright sun Tuesday, seemingly undeterred by the plywood boarding. Three shoppers said boarded windows and the recent thefts that gained national media attention didn't deter them from the festive shopping center, although it did add some apprehension.

"It's sad. We're living in this city that's very beautiful, but we have to deal with robbing. You feel insecure," said Danilo Fuentes, who was shopping with a friend Tuesday. "It feels good that there are police everywhere."

San Francisco police cars parked at intervals around the square, with officers sitting inside or leaning against the vehicles, batons in belts. Fuentes asked an employee flanked by a security guard outside Louis Vuitton whether he could come in to shop, but was told he needed an appointment with an hour's notice, so he moved on.

Retail experts said the fear of more crime amid the critical holiday shopping season and boarded-up windows could deter visitors who don't feel safe, particularly tourists. It could push more customers to online shopping, especially if they need to book reservations to shop in person.

"People are concerned," said Santino DeRose, a retail broker with San Francisco's Maven Properties. "It's discouraging, especially in a city that's so dependent on tourism. It sends the wrong message."

Security costs make it even harder for retailers who struggled financially during the pandemic to survive. Around-the-clock, trained, unarmed security can cost $30,000 a month, while armed, off-duty police officers cost over $100 per hour to hire.

Closed and underperforming stores badly hurt the city budget. San Francisco sales tax data reviewed by The Chronicle shows a plunge in tax revenue during the pandemic in supervisorial Districts 3 and 6, which include downtown, Union Square and South of Market. District 3 tax revenue fell from $26 million in 2019 to $12 million in 2020, while in District 6 it dropped from $28 million to $15.5 million.

San Francisco is far from the only city grappling with organized retail crime and its tangential effects. New York and Chicago have both seen mass robberies, and DeRose said he saw boarded-up stores on a recent Chicago trip after robberies as well. But San Francisco and Oakland were ranked as the second-worst region for organized retail crime in 2020 behind only Los Angeles in a National Retail Federation survey.

At Jins Eyewear by Union Square, team lead Chris Carranza said the store's windows were boarded up on Nov. 20 after a "few guys" broke a hole in the double-paned windows and stole around 100 eyeglass frames during the previous night of widespread robberies. The business struggled to find a company to board up windows because of high demand after the mass robberies. It was the third time during the pandemic that a window to the store was broken, he said.

Jins plans to keep the windows boarded up through the end of the year. "It tends to be busier and we would rather not take any chances," he said. They'll reassess what to do next year, he said, and are considering putting a gate over the windows similar to what they have over the glass door, which has never been broken into.

Carranza said the boarded-up windows haven't hurt business. Black Friday and the Thanksgiving holiday weekend weren't as busy as last year, he said, but he attributed the drop in sales more to the continued pandemic than recent robberies.

Breed told The Chronicle on Tuesday that the city is maintaining high security. She also downplayed the effect of boarded windows on shoppers.

"We're going to continue to maintain a strong public safety presence in neighborhoods in downtown as we finish up this holiday season, and my goal is to make it permanent and to provide a plan to ensure that the things that you have been seeing, that they don't continue to happen — the car break-ins, the robberies and the various things that have occurred," Breed said.

Comment: Here's the Mayor of San Francisco, London Breed, caught out partying - yet again - whilst adhering to none of the Covid restrictions that she's enforcing on others, including children:

"When I talked to people ... they didn't care about a boarded-up storefront. They were just very thankful and they were saying thank you to the police when I was standing there in most cases," Breed said. "I talked to a lot of the various store managers, they were very happy about it. And I think we are just putting too much on boarded-up storefronts.

"I'm not going to tell them to take the boards down. What I am going to tell them is, how do we improve on safety?" Breed said.

Pamela Mendelsohn, a Maven retail broker, said many property owners and retailers remain frustrated and feel years of complaints about retail crime have been overlooked.

"I think they've been desperate to get help. I think a lot of it has come on deaf ears," she said. "There's nothing festive about walking by all these boarded-up storefronts."