Can classical music deter panhandlers? Walgreens blares Bach outside Chicago stores

The pharmacy chain has been playing orchestra music outside of certain Chicago stores, joining other major retailers who have been doing so in other states.

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customers Walgreens 111 S. Halsted St. Chicago loudspeakers speakers classical music

Customers come and go from the Walgreens at 111 S. Halsted St. as classical music blares from loudspeakers outside the store Wednesday.

Sun-Times staff

Got a problem with people lingering at your property? Cue the orchestra.

Walgreens has decided that playing classical music outside certain Chicago stores will keep away loiterers and panhandlers. Whether a blast of Bach works is anybody’s guess, but the pharmacy chain along with other major retailers has previously employed symphonic security in the western U.S.

The Sun-Times this week found classical music greeting customers as they approached the entrance of stores in Greektown, the West Side and River North at 641 N. Clark St. It plays from speakers connected to the building that are covered by a protective screen.

Customer reaction and the results appeared mixed. Carole Hennessy, who said she’s a regular customer at the 111 S. Halsted St. location, said, “It’s always the same couple of selections. There’s a lot more to sample. I find it a little overbearing.”

She added that “if it were up to me, I just might prefer Springsteen.”

Carole Hennessy Walgreens Greektown Chicago

Shopper Carole Hennessy outside of the Walgreens store in Greektown.

David Roeder/Sun-Times

Another customer, who identified himself only as Mike, declared himself “all for it. It’s different. But how about some Greek music. We’re in Greektown, right?” The store was loiterer-free when a reporter visited this week.

Deerfield-based Walgreens said it’s using classical music to discourage vagrancy, although it declined to explain why it thinks it’ll work. Retailers, especially 7-Eleven, have tried the tactic in other states like California and reported some success.

Douglas Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said he found the Walgreens tactic “really disturbing” when a reporter told him about it.

“The root cause of homelessness is a lack of housing and the problem is not going to be solved just by getting people to move from a parking lot to somewhere else,” he said.

Schenkelberg said merchants should reconsider policies that “treat people like a nuisance rather than like human beings.”

He commented that a 7-Eleven downtown near his office fights loitering by playing loud operatic music, or sometimes children’s songs, and by having high-intensity lights near the door.

A 7-Eleven executive could not immediately be reached for comment.

During a reporter’s visit to the three Walgreens in Chicago, the playlist rotated three works: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Strauss’ Radetzky March. Vigorous pieces all meant to encourage patrons and vagrants alike to move along.

On the West Side, the Walgreens at 2340 W. Madison St. showed the limits of the deterrence. Two men who said they were homeless were gathered near planters outside the store, with music softly playing in the distance. They said it’s a decent spot for shade and shelter when it rains.

“We don’t want to approach people,” said Kevin Gregg, who said he’s been homeless for two years. “When we go into the store to shop, they make accusations and follow us around.”

Walgreens 2340 W. Madison St. Chicago

Classical music is heard through speakers outside a Walgreens at 2340 W. Madison St.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Gregg said the shelters can’t help because they are full of migrants. “I’m not blaming anybody. There’s just a limit to what the shelters can do,” he said.

Retailers, whether in big cities or suburban malls, have come under pressure from increased thefts and pandemic-related disruptions, said John Melaniphy, president of Chicago-based retail consultancy Melaniphy & Associates.

He said merchants are looking for ways to hold down crime and youthful rowdiness while keeping locations attractive for shoppers.

“Playing classical music is one strategy,” he said. “It doesn’t create a lot of disturbance. It doesn’t involve the police. It’s not intimidating. Retailers want their core customers to enter and exit without concerns about their security.”

Walgreens spokesperson Kris Lathan declined to list Chicago-area locations using the classical feed. She said the chain has used it for more than a year at various locations “to help deter loitering on the premises. We take steps to ensure the music is only loud enough for the immediate area around the store and cannot be heard in surrounding neighborhoods.”

Lathan also said classical is the only genre in the auditory arsenal. It has employed the tactic in Reno, Nevada, and Tucson, Arizona. A smattering of retailers in other states have reportedly resorted to grand opera, classical’s louder sibling.

Locally, some Chicagoans have complained about the music’s volume on social media but a Walgreens employee, who asked not to be named, said the stores have made adjustments. During the Sun-Times’ visits, the music played at low to moderate levels.

Residents also have said on social media that portable loudspeakers playing classical music, or warnings about trespassing, have been used in a few large parking lots of Target or Home Depot stores.

Home Depot could not be reached for comment.

A Target spokeswoman confirmed the speakers but said it was a mistake.

“Sometimes the technology arrives pre-programmed with different functionality, and in this instance, it just so happens that it was pre-programmed to play music. The store has taken this functionality down, and the music should be shut off now,” she said.

Chicago Walgreens sign loitering trespassing speakers classical music 2340 W. Madison St.

A sign against loitering and trespassing is posted as classical music is heard through speakers located above it, outside Walgreens at 2340 W. Madison St.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

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