By Peter Becker

Managing Editor

PALMYRA TWP. (Wayne) - Shoplifting... retail theft. Whatever you call it, management at the Lake Region IGA Market is aggressively countering criminals who try and leave without paying for food or other items. "We're not tolerating it anymore," said James Shook, co-owner.

Retail theft, a plague for merchants across the board and a common listing on police blotters and district court dockets, finds few recognized patterns, Shook observed. "All ages, seven to 70" commit shoplifting, he said. While probably worse in the summer, when employees are even busier, they also have more on duty to see things. No one time seems favored, he stated.

It affects both the Lake Region IGA and Hawley IGA, on all shifts. Shook gave particular recognition to his night manager, Eric, at the Lake Region store, who has been particularly vigilant in stopping thieves.

Wall of Shame

They stop them, they prosecute them, Eric said (he asked that his last name be withheld). The night manager took this writer to their back room to show off what they have labeled their "Wall of Shame." Pictures of shoplifters and suspected shoplifters, taken from surveillance videos, line the huge bulletin board, with names and information about the incident.

Their "mug shots" are posted so that store employees can see them as they clock their time card when they come to work. That way, they can be looking out for people who have the audacity to come back to the store, even though they have banned from the premises. Pictures are shared with the Hawley store.

Do they ever have cameras. Not often noticed because shoppers tend to be looking forward at the merchandise rather than up, wherever they go they are being seen, by 50 to 60 cameras mounted from the ceiling. There is also a wrap-around mirror near the ceiling. In other words, look pretty and smile as you are on candid camera.

Eric wouldn't give out his methods for catching them. He has a lot of experience working in security in college, and has worked for local supermarkets since he was 16- about 30 years to learn how to spot shoplifters and would-be-shoplifters and how to deal with them.

It isn't just Eric. He was quick to point out that the employees work together as a team. In fact, sometimes customers will tip them off to some funny business, where it appeared some snack food or some tube of toothpaste or whatever just slipped into someone's bag.

Cashiers are trained to look at the shelf under the shopping carts.

Not just food

One might try and have pity thinking these are hungry folk trying to steal a loaf of bread they can't afford to feed their family. Yet it often isn't food. And when it is, it may be junk food. Big target items are not in the food aisle, but where they have medicines... and even diapers and shampoo.

Drug abuse, which has escalated in this region over the years, seems to parallel a rise in retail theft. Eric said that some abusers know which cough syrups or other medicines to try and steal, to extract chemicals to derive their own illegal substance.

Shook noted that thieves have become more aggressive. Their crime is more blatant. "It's not a big deal to them," Shook remarked. "It seems they don't care."

One teenage girl stole a dog bone, collar and leash for her new puppy.

It isn't that they don't have money. One girl had $5,000 to $6,000 with her but was caught stealing items. Most have money on them, Eric said.

A woman in her 60's, retired and living in a nice home, was stealing things at the IGA for what she considered a thrill.

Sometimes they get away but staff gets the merchandise back. In the late fall, two men in their mid-20's were caught leaving the IGA with a cart load of stolen goods. The thieves escaped but the cartload was left behind.

Parents oblivious

Children take things even with their parents nearby. "They're oblivious," said Eric. He stopped one boy who had broken into a package of donuts and was eating one. His parents were next to him concentrated on their shopping and hadn't even noticed.

Winter seems to bring out more, when people think they can hide the loot more easily under their winter coat.

Most of them are opportunistic and didn't plan to steal when they entered the store, Eric said.

The Night Manager said he probably stops one shoplifter a week. He stressed that he does not stop someone unless he is "absolutely sure."

They may come back multiple times. Once staff is certain, the offender is stopped. Shoplifting for some becomes like an addiction. Some shoplifters work together, texting each from one aisle to the other.

Eric suspected that for every one he catches, four or five might get away. "It's terrible for a small community," he said.

Eliminating bags

"We'll start eliminating bag packs and bags not associated with the store, possibly in April," Shook stated. The public is on notice that their bags will be subject to search.

They usually try and pay for the items when they are apprehended, thinking they can then just go their way. But that's not the way it is. Police are called, and offenders are ordered to appear at the magistrate. "If they steal, we press charges," said Eric.

Magistrate fines and costs must be paid and the shoplifter develops a record. The more incidents they have, the heavier the penalty becomes.

Eric pointed out that the value of the products stolen, has to be absorbed by the owners, who are so giving to the community. Each year, Lake Region Community Dock Foundation gives back thousands of dollars to local causes and helps families in need, through fund-raisers they host.