Before local officials skip merrily down the retail trail looking for big box revenues, they should seriously assess the costs of having these huge stores in their community. One of the largest big box costs is public safety. Wal-Mart has been widely criticized for its ‘aggressive hospitality’ in handling shoplifters, but now another chain is in the headlines over the frequency of crime at its stores. Woodman’s Market’s is an employee-owned grocery chain store based in Janesville, Wisconsin. With its 12 huge stores, Woodman’s ranks #75 in sales for American grocers, according to Supermarket News. It is perhaps most distinguishable for the fact that it builds superstores that are even larger than Wal-Mart stores, and for that reason, is often assailed by local residents who don’t buy the concept that ‘larger is better.’ Recently the chain store grabbed some negative local headlines in the Madison Capital Times for a large statistic of another kind. Woodman’s has two stores located in Madison,Wisconsin. According to the Capital Times, the huge stores have been attracting an inordinate amount of police activity. In 2007 and 2008, the Woodman’s stores in Madison accounted for 70% of the city’s retail theft calls at large grocery stores. Even the police were outspoken about their time spent at Woodman’s — and not as shoppers. “Are our resources better used for something like this, or can we adjust our response so we can get those officers to address speeding complaints, quality of life-type issues and more violent crime – issues that our citizens really want us to focus on?” Madison Police Lt. Carl Strasburg was quoted as saying. The newspaper speculates that the reason for the massive amount of police calls to Woodman’s is due to the company’s policy of paying its employees $35 if they catch a shoplifter. The Capital Times interviewed one Woodman’s employee at the Madison store who estimated a shoplifter is nabbed “probably at least one every day.” The store’s minimalist website says nothing about the company, its values, or its operating procedures, but Clint Woodman, the vice president of the chain, told the newspaper that his stores have more shoplifting calls because they have more customers. In 2008, the Madison police had a total of 600 calls regarding stolen merchandise less than $20. Just under one-third of police calls for retail theft are for such minor cases. The police estimate that they spent 840 hours of police time investigating these petty crimes. “That gets to the crux of why we’re taking a look at this – to see if there’s a better way to do retail theft responses,” explained Lt. Strasberg. The police point out that most of the city’s grocery stores have crime issues — but when the police suggested reduced responses to minor shoplifting cases, only Woodman’s had concerns. But the store now also has to deal with newspaper headlines suggesting that crime is an issue at their stores — which is not likely to please its general customers one bit.
The Madison police have suggested that these chain stores spend a little of their profits on their own store security. The cops have also suggested that stores post signs on merchandise that is often stolen. Police officials could also set a dollar limit that would prompt a visit to the store, such as $50 or $75. But Clint Woodman was quoted as objecting to that response: “We don’t think that them raising it to $75 or $50, or whatever it is, is good for Madison.” The company’s two stores in Madison use a “self-reporting” system for shoplifting worth less than $10. But Woodman complained that the police self-reporting system is not very helpful. “If (police) don’t respond to it, there’s no attention paid to that particular shoplifter. It never gets followed through if you just self-report.” Many of these shoplifting incidents become court incidents as well, further driving up the public cost of handling these cases. The Dane County District Attorney’s Office will only prosecute thefts from chain grocery stores worth $200 or more.
Woodman says that some of the ideas raised by the police just make no sense. “If you sit there and try to do everything you can to prevent shoplifters, you’re not going to be selling any merchandise.” The Capital Times interviewed one member of the city’s Public Safety Review Committee, who told the newspaper he saw a pregnant young woman get chased throughout a Woodman’s store. “It was just awful, knocking stuff over,” he recalls. The police note that Woodman’s can take civil action on their own against shoplifters. Under Wisonsin law, stores can go after treble damages for the value of the items stolen. But stores like Woodman’s may not consider it cost-effective to spend the time pursuing civil claims for low dollar losses. The newspaper also pointed out that some collection agencies now offer this civil action service to merchants. Woodman’s says its willing to spend some money to pursue shoplifters, and is willing to pay the police for their time. Regardless of how this issue in Madison works out, the Woodman’s story is just another reminder that big box stores are attractive not just to shoppers, but for criminals also — especially in tough economic times. Shoplifters are more likely to steal from what they consider to be an anonymous big box chain store than from some little Mom & Pop store. These incidents can result in significant public cost for pursuing and prosecuting the shoplifters. Clint Woodman says, “It’s just not right to let someone shoplift and get away with it,” but it’s also not right to leave the public paying for incessant police responses to a business that does not have sufficient security staff of its own to deter theft in the first place. Loss prevention is a business cost. If Woodman’s had a more visible security presence, it might deter petty crimes, and lower police reports. Before public officials approve big box stores, they need to look at these public costs as well, especially given the strapped budgets they oversee. The retailers don’t like to talk about these costs, but the jobs and revenues that developers brag about are often police jobs and public revenues that get chewed up responding to crime at big box stores.