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Friday, Nov. 21, 2008 | Sam Alkatib owns a small, spotless AM/PM Arco gas station at the corner of Campo Road and Bancroft Drive in Spring Valley. Earlier this year, Alkatib’s mini-mart was getting hit two or three times a day by young men who would simply grab cans of beer out of the fridge and run away into the street.
The problem got so bad, Alkatib said, that he came up with a novel solution: He canceled all orders for the product the men liked, a potent mixture of energy drink and beer called Joose. These days, Alkatib said, he’s only hit about once a week.
Canceling the neighborhood thief’s favorite tipple is one of the few options available to grocery store owners who face the near-constant nuisance of so-called “grab and go” shoplifting.
Shoplifters are often able to simply walk into stores, pick up the merchandise they like, and stroll out, without every being confronted by staff. That’s because they know that stores choose — oftentimes through formal policy at large chains — not to confront shoplifters because of the threat of physical injury to employees and the ever-present danger of lawsuits.
“It happens all the time,” said Mike Hayden, who has worked in retail loss prevention for 24 years, and now works at the family-run Foodland store in El Cajon. “You’re supposed to just stand there and watch.”
At some smaller, family-run stores, proprietors said letting thieves walk out scot free is tantamount to advertising that their store is soft on crime — something that only invites more criminals. Retail theft experts and local storekeepers said that’s not lost on criminals, who often target corporate, rather than family-run, stores for grab and go’s, knowing they’re less likely to be confronted and even less likely to be chased if they make it out the door.
Razak Namou owns three small grocery stores and three gas stations in Escondido and Lemon Grove and has been in the grocery business for about 20 years. He said that as San Diego’s economy has worsened in the last year or so, he’s seen more and more instances of grab and go’s at his stores and that these days his gas stations are hit about once a week.
Like most of the more than a dozen local shopkeepers interviewed for this article, Namou said by far the most commonly stolen product in his stores is alcohol. In a typical grab and go, he said, thieves grab a 12- or 24- pack of beer when they think no one is looking and make a run for it.
Namou said his policy for confronting such thieves is strict: He tells his employees to never give chase and never to leave the confines of the store. Instead, he tells his staff to make an immediate 911 call to report the crime. His reasoning is simple.
“We don’t know if they have a knife or some other weapon,” Namou said. “Why would I want my staff to get hurt? For what? For a 12-pack of beer?”
Richard Hollinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Florida and an expert on retail crime, said not giving chase to shoplifters has been “the rule of the road,” for most retailers for a long time.
“It’s a classic dilemma,” Hollinger said. “You could get your merchandise back, but you could also get your employees hurt or even killed. All it takes is for one of these cases to turn into a bad situation.”
Putting an employee in danger isn’t the only potential problem with chasing a suspected shoplifter out of a store. A store employee could also have been mistaken about the theft, and the suspected thief could turn out to be innocent. Any confrontation could potentially end up with the accused shoplifter bringing a lawsuit against the store.
Similarly, once outside the store, a physical confrontation with a shoplifter could also end with the shoplifter getting hurt — falling during the chase or being physically injured by the pursuer — which could land a store owner in serious legal trouble.
One such lawsuit could rack up tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for a store, not to mention any possible settlement or judgment against the company. So it’s simply not worth stores taking the risk of facing legal action for the sake of $10 or $30 worth of beer, said Kerry Steigerwalt, a local defense attorney.
“Only bad things can happen if store employees go after criminals,” he said.
But there’s a flipside to such restraint.
Don Marso, who owns the Valley Farm Market in Spring Valley, said his policy is to chase down and apprehend anyone who tries to steal from him. To do otherwise, he said, is to show weakness in what is a constant game of cat-and-mouse between retailer and shoplifter.
“If I see them take it, I’ll run out after them. If you don’t do that, then they’ll just think you’re a soft touch and they’ll be back,” Marso said.
In his fight against crime, it probably helps that Marso is an imposing 6 feet 2 inches tall and his son, Derek, who also works in the store, is a 6 feet 3 inch former defensive tackle who played for the Chargers.
Nonetheless, after the spate of grab and go’s that hit Spring Valley recently, the Marsos decided their bulk and hawk eyes alone weren’t enough to protect their merchandise. They recently spent $26,000 on a state-of-the-art security system.
“It’ll probably pay for itself within a year,” said Derek Marso.
Jose Limon, who used to work in loss prevention in San Diego for J.C. Penney Co. and Albertsons, and is currently writing a thesis on organized shoplifting for his master’s degree in criminal justice at San Diego State University, said mom-and-pop grocery stores have a number of advantages over corporate chains that make them less likely to be targeted by grab and go thieves.
First, it’s simply easier to steal from large grocery stores because they’re bigger, usually more sparsely staffed and easier to get in and out of, Limon said.
Chain stores are also far more likely to have strict corporate policies that order staff to stand back and watch as a grab and go takes place instead of intervening, he said, something thieves take into account when choosing which store to hit. The person working at a mom-and-pop store is also often a member of the store owner’s family, which means that he or she has a personal and psychological interest in stopping thieves from stealing their family’s produce, Limon said. Again, that’s something thieves consider before striking, he said.
“Thieves know the rules of engagement,” Limon said.
And, Limon said, in his interviews with shoplifters he’s found that thieves simply think it’s more acceptable to steal from a large corporation than from a small, family-run store.
“Most of the time they just say ‘What does it matter? It’s a big company, and I’m just taking a couple of bottles,’” Limon said. “As opposed to if they’re attacking a mom-and-pop store, where they really know that this person is going to be directly affected by the theft.”