San Francisco boutique owner brings criminologist background to retailing

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Small to mid-volume independent retailers can be more vulnerable to thieves than larger chains that often have more resources to combat theft, though Chelsea Moylan says there are tactics that smaller retailers can adopt to better protect themselves and their hard-earned dollars.

Moylan, who has a Master in Criminology, owns and operates specialty store Anomie in San Francisco. By training herself and her staff to be observant and attuned to their surroundings at all times, Moylan loses as little as $400 a year to shrink — even though Anomie sells independent designer clothing brands averaging $150 to $180, along with fine jewelry, home goods, beauty products and accessories in the $400 price range.

As a student of criminal behavior, Moylan makes it a priority for store employees to get to know customers very well and notice when shoppers linger at a display or enter the dressing room with multiple items, seem to be watching store associates a little too carefully or behaving in an overly friendly way.

When they observe behavior that seems designed to assure store associates they can relax, Moylan or an associate will move closer to the customer, folding shirts or checking a display.

“If a customer is honest they’ll just assume we’re working and they’ll continue shopping,” Moylan says, “but if they had something else in mind, they’ll get anxious and move on.”

Paying attention

Moylan launched Anomie online 2014; in September 2015, she opened the 1,200-square-foot bricks-and-mortar store, which also acts as an online fulfillment center. The store’s merchandising acts as an additional theft deterrent.

“We strive for a minimal look,” she says. “We don’t move things around very often.

Our candles are always in the same spot and our clothing racks stay in the same places. Our front table always holds sweaters. Our back table always holds jewelry.”

There’s a camera at the front and back of the store, and unless a customer is very well-known and trusted, no one on the sales floor will leave customers alone to go into the back room.

The Nest cameras in place have a feature that lets users set an alert every time a customer walks into a zone in the store that requires close surveillance. Moylan and her staff check each time a customer leaves the dressing room or walks away from a visually obscured corner.

“When someone looks at a shelf or a sunglass rack and walks away, we immediately look at it to be sure everything looks right,” she says. “It’s a lot of doublechecking to make sure everything is right. That’s how we catch a lot of thieves.”

Missing items are usually noticed very quickly; if a customer is seen slipping an item into a bag or pocket, a staff member politely asks if they’d like to pay for the item.

When a customer tries to or does steal from Anomie, “it’s not because they need the item or can’t afford it,” Moylan says. “They’re committing little crimes of opportunity. They might grab sunglasses, especially when they notice that we’ve looked down and are helping someone else. It’s never been someone who has cased the place and then comes back. Most of the time, the stuff that gets stolen is in our little random blind spots.”

She has also turned a marketing tool — requesting email addresses when customers make a purchase — into a loss prevention tool: If a customer is caught on video stealing a product, Moylan matches the thief to their email and follows up by contacting the customer and asking them to either return the item or pay for it.

Moylan says she needs to check video footage every three to four weeks, which takes between 15 minutes and one hour because she narrows the time between when an item was last filmed on the shelf to when she or a staff person noticed it missing.

“It’s a lot of doublechecking to make sure everything is right, and that’s how we catch a lot of thieves.”
— Chelsea Moylan, Anomie

If the thief leaves the store without making a purchase, Moylan posts the video of the theft on Facebook, asking followers if they know that person. When she finds the person, she contacts them, asking them to return or pay for what they’ve taken. They always have, she says, sometimes tearfully apologetic, sometimes sending it back or paying for it through a friend or family member and sometimes denying they stole anything but paying for it anyway “just to get it over with.”

She also shares videos with neighboring retailers — they share their videos as well, a texting community partnership which Moylan “highly recommends.”

However, no action is taken to post a video or call a suspected thief until Moylan and her staff have looked through the store thoroughly. “We’re not going to contact a person unless we can’t find the item and we know for certain that we have a video clip that shows them taking it.”

Employee relationships

The least expensive item stolen was an $18 leather key chain. On the high side, clothing worth about $180 has been taken — the most expensive item was a $400 bag, but the criminologist in Moylan didn’t let that one get very far away.

At 8:30 p.m., with the shop door open because it was hot, Moylan was cleaning and turned around to see a man running out the door. Not even aware of what he had taken, she ran after him with a dust mop still in her hand, yelling, “Give me back what you took!” and shaking the dust mop at him. The thief threw the purloined item and kept running, and she got her bag back.

“That only happened once, and is not something I would do again,” Moylan says. “That was just adrenaline.”
Moylan works hard to get to know people before hiring them. She checks references. She watches for signs that they may try to overly impress her. She notices when they are honest about their faults. Because she trusts her employees, she doesn’t use cameras to keep an eye on them, and she has never had an internal theft.

“That’s probably my biggest anti-theft tactic,” she says, “to have really tight relationships with my employees.”

Liz Parks is a Union City, N.J.-based writer with extensive experience reporting on retail, pharmacy and technology issues.

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