Redwood Falls Gazette
  • Shoplifting on the rise

  • According to some shop owners, shoplifting is on the increase. Last week, the Gazette talked to six Redwood Falls merchants to see how they’re dealing.

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  • According to some shop owners, shoplifting is on the increase. Last week, the Gazette talked to six Redwood Falls merchants to see how they’re dealing.
    “We’ve have a mounting issue with shoplifting in the last 12 to 18 months,” said Connie Lechner, general manager of Tersteeg’s.
    “We carry 30,000 items in our store,” said Lechner, and everything in the store is up for grabs, so to speak.
    “We saw a man stuffing a frozen pizza in his jacket, right in front of us,” said Lechner. “Another man had a pound of hamburger fall out of his shorts.”
    By far the most frequently stolen items at Tersteeg’s are in the health and beauty aisle.
    “Over-the-counter medicines have gotten dramatically worse in the last year. We’d buy a case of 12 Mucinex, and sell only one,” said Lechner. “Usually it’s youth stealing mouthwash and cough syrup, mixing it all together to try to get high. We finally had to take it off the shelves and lock it away.
    Lechner said there isn’t a standard profile of shoplifters.
    “We can’t pinpoint a group, but times are tough, and some people may feel driven to it, such as senior citizens who are financially strained.”
    Like most stores, Tersteeg’s has protocols to protect against stealing.
    “If we see suspicious activity, like someone darting in and out of aisles. we’ll alert a manager to follow them around,” said Lechner. “If someone comes in with a large purse or bag, we’ll follow them.”
    If someone is caught stealing, Tersteeg’s policy is to prosecute.
    “If they’re caught, we send them to the police station,”?said Lechner. “The police department is very helpful all the time, and very prompt in getting here.
    “We’re private property, so we can have shoplifters arrested for trespassing. We try to not do that, since we’re a grocery store, and we don’t want to say people can’t shop here.
    “But when certain people come in, we do follow them. We know that if we catch them a first time, they’ll be back.”
    Bad checks are, if anything, an even larger problem at Tersteeg’s.
    “We get at least one bad check every day, and those put us out thousands of dollars a year, too,” said Lechner. “We’ve been told by the police that if we get out-of-town checks to be wary, but we’re on a highway. It’s not feasible for us to exclude all out-of-town business.
    “We’re an independent retailer. If we mark up an item by 10 percent, we lose the rest right out of our profit,” said Lechner. “We sell 3.2 alcohol in six-packs. If someone steals just one from a pack, we’ve lost eight dollars, since we can’t sell the pack with one bottle missing.”
    “Shoplifting costs us thousands of dollars every year,” said Lechner. “There’s no insurance for it. We’re just out that amount, and it comes out of our profit. I feel bad for all retailers, trying to survive in a small town.”
    The Gem Den
    “As the economy gets worse, people get more and more desperate,” said Kyle Mays, co-owner of the Gem Den jewelry store.
    “In this industry, most of the big thefts are in the big cities. I can pretty much guarantee that if we’re going to have a big lost of inventory, it would have to be pretty well thought out.”
    Unlike a general store which sells thousands of items, the Gem Den “is a small, specialty store, so we can be more contained. I can watch the entire store,” said Mays.
    Mays has a strict protocol when working with customers.
    “I only take one piece of inventory out at a time,” he said. “Everything important is behind glass, or in a locked case, which is a little more deterring.”
    Because of the locked cases, people who want to steal from the Gem Den usually have to be more open about what they’re doing.
    “A person came in and wanted to look at the purses,” said Mays. “I took one out of the case and handed it to him - and he ran out the door, a ‘grab-and-run.’ It was the first major incident we’ve had at our Redwood Falls store since we came here 10 years ago.”
    After awhile, shop owners notice certain patterns in customers.
    “I notice when people come in and don’t talk, the way they carry themselves, if they don’t make eye contact... It’s more of a gut feeling,” said Mays. “The biggest thing that could deter a shoplifter is to walk over and say hi, and make eye contact.
    “I’ve learned to be cautious, especially when many customers come in at once,” said Mays. “You can’t just instantly assume people are trying to rob you. You have to balance giving people the benefit of the doubt with being safe.”
    Mays said he gets two or three bad checks a year, and “ninety percent of the time, they’ll call me to tell me the check was bad, but they money’s there so I can run it again. I’ve only had to take legal action two times.”
    “I was a loss-prevention officer for Menards for many years,” said Greg Larson of Larson’s Ace Hardware and Maytag Appliance Center.
    “We do have a number of cameras in our store. If an item has been missing since last Tuesday, we can go back and look at the camera, and see exactly who took it, when they took it, how they concealed it, and when they walked out the door. Then it’s a matter of whether to get the sheriff involved or not.”
    Because of his inventory and surveillance systems, Larson can track patterns in which items are being stolen with which customers come in on certain days.
    For example, say items from certain departments keep disappearing on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
    It’s not too complicated for Larson to check his cameras to see if a certain customer only comes in on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
    One red flag is when customers spend awhile pondering an item in the center of an aisle, then go to each end of the aisle to see if the coast is clear.
    “With video, the coast is never clear,” said Larson.
    Another bad sign is the customer who comes in and just browses for an hour.
    “We try to greet everyone who comes in the store,” said Larson. “We’ll look them right in the eye and say, ‘Hi, Bill!’ There’s nothing like just being helpful. It’s a great deterrent.”
    Larson’s policy is to try to deal with shoplifters himself, only pulling in law enforcement as a last resort.
    “I’ll call the shoplifter and say, ‘I recommend you drop what you’re doing and come down to the store. It appears we’ve got something to talk about,” Larson said.
    Usually when Larson calls shoplifters, “there’s a silence on the other end of the line. They need to think.
    “I’ve told hundreds of people, ‘I’ve got a video, and if you plead not guilty, I’ll put the video in the courtroom VCR in front of the judge and show him you taking the item.’ I’ve never had anyone plead not guilty.
    “I don’t want anyone to have a rap sheet, but I do want them to learn something. We want people to understand, if they get caught, this is not an experience they want to repeat. Nothing good can ever come of this.”
    Larson said shoplifting costs Ace Hardware up to about $15,000 a year, with most stolen items being in the $10-20 range, although someone recently tried stealing a $160 drill.
    “Usually, it’s stuff they don’t need. I usually get more upset when they steal things they don’t need, like a $10 duck call.
    “Some people have a sickness, or a need to shoplift,” Larson said, citing one customer who stole a $5 item while having a wallet that contained several $100 bills.
    Then there was the customer who came in carrying an empty box, and left with a drill press in it.
    “I confronted him in the parking lot, and he said, ‘Thank God you caught me. I couldn’t stop.’”
    Larson followed the man home, and found five shopping carts worth of stolen merchandise in the customer’s garage.
    “It’s pretty easy to make a judgement call,” Larson said. “We’ll ban people from the store if they get confrontational and argumentative, even if we don’t have proof.
    “In a small town, shop owners talk to each other about people they’ve had a problem with,” said Larson. “The information travels like wildfire.”
    “Two percent of your sales is an acceptable level of theft,” said Larson, citing industry norms. He adds, “In the Redwood area, it’s less than that.”
    Connie’s Hallmark Shoppe and Gift Gallery
    “A couple years ago, we used to say we didn’t have a problem with shoplifting,” said Connie Martin, co-owner of the Hallmark store in Redwood Falls.
    “We mentioned that to another shop owner, and she said, ‘Oh, yes you do!’”
    “The incidences of shoplifting have gone up since last year. Weekly we’ll find items missing, or empty boxes on the shelves.
    The Martins make a point of keeping smaller, more easily shopliftable items on shelves by the front counter.
    “We keep the Precious Moments items locked up, and we’re thinking of getting more cases to lock up merchandise.”
    “With collectables, it’s really awful,” said Martin, pointing out a rack of illustrated plates displayed in little stands. “Last year, we kept seeing the holders were empty.”
    It’s particularly frustrating for the Martins when people steal just one collectable out of a series.
    “The value is in the set, and we have to order them in sets,” said Martin. “When someone steals just one of them, we discount out the rest.”
    “Before Christmas I was in back, and Connie came over and asked me to watch a woman who came in with a huge purse,” said Ron Martin.
    “She went into the gift gallery, and I saw her kneel down and nonchalantly put two items into her purse. We called the police. She was a regular customer of ours, and when the police emptied her purse, they found $250 worth of merchandise inside.
    Tammy Martin explained another tactic she’s recently encountered.
    “A lady I’d never seen before came in with a framed picture, and said she wanted her money back.
    “The picture was kind of dusty, and wasn’t one I recognized. I think she must have come in before, and taken a price sticker off an item in our store, and put it on her picture.”
    “We’re always looking for new ways to deal with it,” said Martin. “We’re thinking of having customers come up to the counter to open boxes for us.”
    When the Martins confirm someone has stolen from them, they contact other retailers in the area immediately.
    “When customers come in, we talk with them and make our presence known,” said Connie Martin. “Some aren’t real excited about saying hi.”
    Between Friends
    “As my scrapbooking inventory has grown, my shoplifting has decreased,” said Kathy Behrendt, owner of Between Friends. “Scrapbooking has lots of small items, so you’d think there would be more shoplifting.”
    It’s not that scrapbookers are necessarily more honest. It’s that Behrendt has been cutting down on the amount of her shop that caters to gifts and decor - two specialties that get stolen more often.
    Behrendt has noticed that in her shop, smaller, less expensive items tend to be stolen the most.
    “It’s not as if people can’t afford them,” she said. “It’s almost like they’re thinking, ‘I’ll take it because I can.’”
    “Groups of three or four tend to make me more wary, especially if I haven’t seen them before,”?said Behrendt. “You can’t be suspicious of everyone. You can’t just look at anyone and feel they’re going to shoplift.
    “I hadn’t had a bad check in six years, and then I’ve had a few in just the last couple of months,” said Behrendt. “One was a really big one. Smaller checks are just a loss - they’re not worth prosecuting.
    “It’s gotten to the point that I’ll no longer accept checks after Sept. 1. The people I get bad checks from aren’t local, but I have to make it a blanket policy so I’m not being prejudiced.
    “Ninety-nine percent of my customers I know, and I know how women shop. They like to touch, and to process. I don’t want to follow them around and make them feel uncomfortable,” Behrendt said.
    “I hate to set policies that make good customers feel uncomfortable, but there are just those few who, I guess, make me second guess my small town friendliness.”
    Lights of Home
    Usually, the first Karen Hammerschmidt notices an item has been stolen “is if I come in and see and empty space on a shelf that wasn’t empty before.”
    “When some people come in, I just get the feeling they’ve lifted something. Wintertime is the worst, when people are wearing big coats.”
    Other signs are customers, “just having that nervous look, or coming in and out of the store really quick,” said Hammerschmidt.
    Hammerschmidt recently got a bad check for a large amount from an out of town customer.
    “I called the girl several times, and said, ‘I don’t want you to get a felony for this.’”
    When Hammerschmidt contacted the police, she discovered that customer had closed her checking account, then kept writing checks.
    Hammerschmidt is at the point of wondering if she should just not accept checks any more.
    “If people are writing bad checks to us, why does the bank charge us a fee?” she asked.
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