New York Retailers Keep Wary Eye On Grinches
By Nola Weinstein
Steiff bears, Star Wars figurines, PlayStation 3s—these are the hot items among toy store thieves this season. And, according to industry experts, they are not stolen by poor parents who want to place toys under the Christmas tree. Instead, most items are stolen by petty shoplifters looking to fence them to other toy sellers or peddle them on the street themselves.
On the Upper East Side, a man was mugged recently for his game console. And in Wilmington, N.C., police shot and killed Peyton Strickland, an 18-year-old student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who allegedly robbed a fellow student of his PS3. The officers mistook his game controller for a weapon.
“They steal and then use the money for bigger and better things like cars and clothing,” said Peter Sifuentes, the loss prevention supervisor for FAO Schwarz. “They aren’t desperate, just greedy.”
American retailers suffer losses of $34 billion a year from store theft, with much of those losses coming during the holiday season. “Stores are busier during the holidays and unfortunately that makes it easier for criminals to take advantage of the anti-theft detection systems,” said Hannah Abney, a spokeswoman for the Retail Industry Leaders Association in Arlington, Va.
The stores are crowded, sales clerks are overwhelmed and the jam-up of people makes it easier for thieves to melt away with their booty, she said.
To foil them, loss prevention departments at the nation’s largest toy retailers keep a special eye on the items that top children’s wish lists, like Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console, which sells for $641. Because only small quantities of the game system were delivered to stores, there were reports of violence and armed robbery at some locations.
“People buy or steal the systems, then turn around and sell them on eBay,” said Kyle Coniam, who works at a Game Spot store. “They go for what is worth the most.”
Retailers say electronic toys are especially attractive to thieves, particularly when they are new, expensive and in short supply. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii systems have also been targeted by thieves.
One GameSpot store, for instance, keeps its game cartridges and consoles in the back of the store. In addition, all of the boxes in the front display case are empty, and the store’s glass front wall is bulletproof. “We know those are the things people try and steal,” said Mike Saad, the store manager. “So we make it impossible.”
An FAO Schwarz store stopped carrying popular video games but still had its fair share of shoplifters. This season the store has had a problem with patrons stealing Star Wars figurines and the highly collectible Steiff bears, which are made of fine goat hair and cost $90 to $800.
Wal-Mart, which operates more than 4,200 stores in the United States and Canada, also gears up its theft watch for the holiday rush, said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for the retailer. “Each Wal-Mart location will be able to use a choice of off-duty police officers, third-party security units and their own security personnel.”
Smaller stores are easier to monitor, but still not immune to the problem. “We carry small specialty items, but people still find what to take,” said Victoria Jackson, a clerk at the Toy Store in Atlanta, where employees occasionally find ripped packages with missing pieces.
But independent stores can’t let their vigilance create the impression that they are unfriendly to customers. “We have no way of knowing who will try and steal, and we don’t want to create a policy or atmosphere of tension,” said Brekke Hewitt, owner of Dragon’s Toy Box in Seattle. “We just offer to help everyone.”
Though stores are constantly on the lookout, thieves have gotten more creative and sophisticated. “Professional criminals now utilize technology to their advantage,” Abney said. A new computer program, for instance, enables scam artists to create scannable bar codes that they can stick on expensive items and greatly lower their sales price when they pass them through the check-out booth.
Heelys Shoes, which are sneakers with wheels embedded in the heels, have also been gliding out of stores at a fast pace. “Younger customers ask to try a pair on and then switch their old shoes for them,” Sifuentes said. “They leave the box on the floor.”
As for prosecuting children, he said FAO Schwarz presses charges against anyone 12 and above who steals something worth $25 or more. Those under 12 are issued a warning.
“When they get caught, people try and tell me they need food on the table,” said Sifuentes, who watches the selling floors on closed circuit televisions. “I tell them to get a job. I have no pity; stealing is just wrong.”