Saturday, February 2, 2013

Five Finger Discount


When I was much younger and still prone to drug and alcohol excesses, I used to steal stuff. It was sport, not necessity, and I stopped when I got caught. I had been eyeing a pair of Ray Bans at the local sports store and decided to try the old sunglasses-on-top-of-the-head ploy--you know, wear them around as if they're yours, and walk out of the store. But I got nabbed by a lady cashier who threatened to have me deported and that was that.
Even now, I occasionally fantasize stealing, imagining exactly how I would get this or that item out of the store without paying for it. It’s mildly entertaining if I have too much time on my hands.
I bring this up because I saw a woman stealing last week. I was at one of those giant hangar stores that carry everything from bicycles to bacon when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a well-dressed white woman in her forties stuff a large Brie cheese into her handbag. She was neither furtive nor hurried. She picked it up, read the label, put it in her purse. There were people around but I'm pretty sure I was the only one who noticed. I followed at a distance and saw her take another large piece of cheese, a pack of smoked turkey slices, a tin of ham and a box of Belgian chocolates. Everything went into her large red leather purse. If she noticed me noticing her, she chose to ignore it. Eventually, she pushed her shopping cart into a check out line, paid her money and left.
Not once was I tempted to call security. Obviously, she had a ham and cheese jones. Maybe her husband—she wore a wedding band—was in dairy product rehab. Maybe she had a large family to feed. Maybe she wanted to surprise a lover.
I estimated that she spent about a hundred, stole about fifty. I assume she got a thrill from it, felt perhaps that she was getting even with something or someone. I somehow doubt that she really needed the stuff.
According to statistics, retail theft is up, with the incidence of food theft rising daily. No surprise there as the cost of daily living spirals out of control. Gasoline theft is at an all time high as well, and in my neighborhood, many stations have instituted pay-before-you-pump starting at dark. I have not researched cheese theft per se and so can't tell you whether that's up too.
I imagine it's kind of tough for stores. How far can you go protecting your merchandise without alienating the customers? Where do you draw the line? Will you really prosecute Gammie for stealing batteries? (Yes, that's from Seinfeld.)
A friend who used to work security at Safeway told me about a family that would enter the store in the early morning, cause a diversion by knocking over a stack soup cans or fruit, then stuff their respective pockets during the commotion. Soon, they were well-known throughout the area and one morning all five of them were arrested—Mom, Dad, three children between the ages of twelve and seventeen. While Dad and the kids went for basic staples—hamburger meat, Polish sausage, Eggos and such, Mom specialized in high price items. When the police searched her, they found $400 of fois gras and filet mignon.

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