Noe Valley Voice October 2001

Merchants Take Aim at Shoplifting

By Kathy Dalle-Molle

In mid-September, in response to a series of thefts at Rite Aid and Bell (see story on liquor thefts), the Voice checked in with several other merchants about shoplifting problems in the neighborhood. Most said that shoplifters had been quite active this summer, but that the start of school had ushered in a short lull. Still, many merchants were beginning to implement improved security measures as they geared up for the biggest shoplifting season of the year -- Christmas.

Kari Bootner, manager of See Jane Run on 24th near Vicksburg, said she has noticed "inventory shrinkage across the board" this year, so her fitness clothing store has started to take more precautions against shoplifting.

"We're doing retraining of our employees," she said, "to make them aware of how easy it is for people to shoplift. For instance, we now make sure that people do not go into the dressing room carrying large bags." Product displays have been rearranged as well.

After two weeks of heavy theft at Rabat in early summer, employees of the clothing store at 24th and Noe also have tightened security in preparation for the holiday shopping season. "One day in June, we found seven sensors that had been removed from clothing items and left in a dressing room," said employee Christine Sanchez. Not long after, Sanchez said, employees found a handful of sensors in the pocket of a clothing item on the store's merchandise rack.

Since then, Rabat workers "have had a much more watchful eye," said Sanchez. "We always make sure someone is at the cash register. We also help people one-on-one when they need a fitting room. Sometimes before, if it was very busy, we would just point them in the direction of the dressing room. Not anymore."

Colleen O'Brien, manager of Ambiance, another 24th Street clothing store, said she and the employees and managers of Rabat and the Designers Club make a point of alerting one another by phone or in person if their store has been the victim of a theft.

O'Brien previously worked at Ambiance's store on Haight Street, where shoplifting was much more prevalent, she said. "That helped me learn to be leery and watchful no matter what neighborhood I'm working in."

Still, the Noe Valley store is not immune, said O'Brien, pointing to a display of earrings on the store's counter. "We didn't used to have a sensor on this display until someone came in one day and stole the whole display."

O'Brien also reported that Ambiance has been visited more than once by a shoplifter who is well-known on 24th Street. She is a woman in her late 50s to early 60s, who could easily be taken for your grandmother. In mid-September, the woman shoplifted a padlock and several small chains from Ames Locksmith, located three doors down from Ambiance. She then went into Ambiance and left behind the plastic container for the lock.

Ames Manager Mark Prior witnessed the theft, but was reluctant to apprehend the older woman. "We saw her put the lock and the chains in her purse," said Prior. "But she was a gray-haired old lady, and it gave us a weird feeling to think about going after her, so we just let her leave. I mean, she's an old lady. What are you going to do?"

When Toko Arts opened in the neighborhood two years ago, "we didn't expect any problems with shoplifting," said Manager Chris Diehl, "but shoplifting is worse at this store than at our store in North Beach.

"Shoplifters in Noe Valley blend in really well," he said. "It's like 'Normal Land' here. It's people you wouldn't suspect. Women with strollers. Husbands with wives. On weekends especially, people will open one of our jewelry cases and take a ring or whatever they can grab, and run out of the store.

"We're shocked at how much has disappeared when we add everything up each month," said Diehl.

Frequently, unless a suspect is caught in the act, merchants do not report these thefts to police. "It's just not worth the police's time," said one merchant who asked not to be identified.

Still, Police Officer Lorraine Lombardo encourages merchants to report the incidents. To combat shoplifters, she also recommends that merchants not place highly desirable items near the front door and that they put the store's cash register in a central location, "so employees can see what's going on in the rest of the store."

Lombardo also reminds merchants that "four eyes are better than two. It's important that merchants pass the word on to others quickly if they've been the victim of shoplifters. It's also very important that merchants trust their gut feeling. If you think a person in the store looks suspicious, go with that gut feeling."

Although merchants and police can offer up a variety of reasons for why people shoplift, Noe Valley merchants and Officer Lombardo strongly believe that recent shoplifting incidents in the neighborhood are not a result of the looming recession.

"I really do believe there are just more thieves around," said Lombardo.

"People are not stealing out of need or because of the recession," agreed Toko's Diehl. "It's just the state of people today."