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Here’s a fascinating tidbit I just didn’t have space to fit into my story today about shoplifting:

Jose Limon, who used to head up loss prevention for Albertsons in San Diego and is now doing a thesis in organized shoplifting at San Diego State University, told me that the first day a supermarket opens is a bit of a free-for-all for shoplifters.

Here’s why: Limon, who said he opened four stores in San Diego County for Albertsons, said that on a supermarket’s opening day, it is absolutely vital for the chain to give a good impression to local people. As a result, he said, loss prevention officers and other employees at the stores are given strict orders not to cause any scenes that could sully the store’s reputation on opening day.

That means not confronting shoplifters, even if they’re blatantly just walking in, loading up, and walking out again. The scenes that often result from confronting suspected shoplifters are exactly what a company wants to avoid as it tries to cement its reputation in a community, he said.

“Usually, we’ll say, like ‘Do you need help with that liquor bottle in your bag? Do you need help paying for it? I can help direct you.’ But they don’t want any of that on that first day, because usually they’ll have newscasters, they have the Chamber of Commerce there, so they don’t want anything to happen that day,” Limon told me.

Compounding the problem on opening day is that stores often want to put on their best face, so they stock the store with all sorts of fancy merchandise which, for one day at least, they don’t lock behind glass cabinets, Limon said.

So, Limon said, word gets around that there’s a new store opening, and shoplifters show up on opening day looking for a real bargain. Like the guy who Limon said showed up one opening day and swiped four $100-plus bottle of Dom Perignon Champagne, then went to the meat counter and loaded up on expensive rib-eye steaks before strolling out of the door of the supermarket.

That guy, who Limon said loaded up about $1,000 worth of merchandise, proved too much for one member of staff who, against all the rules, confronted him and he ran away. Limon said the employee who did the confronting probably got in serious trouble from his manager.

That brings me to another fascinating point that I couldn’t squeeze into my story. Mike Hayden, who’s worked in loss prevention at stores for more than 24 years and who worked for almost a decade at Longs Drugs, said that despite corporate policies, many store employees can’t just sit back and watch as people steal from their stores.

At many of the large grocery stores, Hayden said, shoplifters target more expensive items than the typical “grab and go” shoplifter, who’s normally just trying to grab a case of beer or a bottle of liquor. Shoplifters at large chains often load up with goods that are small but expensive like razors and baby formula, before making a run for it, he said.

Despite stores having strict policies that order staff to stand back and not to confront shoplifters, Hayden said, in the real world, adrenaline sometimes kicks in.

“There’s not a manager in the world that’s going to stand back and watch someone wheel $1,000 worth of baby formula out the door,” Hayden said.

Hayden claimed that while stores have these strict policies, in reality store managers are often grateful to employees who are brave, or stupid, enough to confront shoplifters.

“Sure, they might write the employee up, but they’ll be giving him a pat on the back at the same time,” Hayden said.


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