Stalked in a Store: Thoughts on Love and Theft
I feel his eyes on me but they never meet mine. I look over and he looks down as if he's fiddling with this or that before him. It's quite obvious he's trailing me. He doesn't stray more than six feet from my side.
But this story starts nine years earlier….
Like I do now, back then I held a strong affection for my favorite sports teams. I was in college at the time. A new little sports memorabilia store called JP Sports opened up in the Town Center next to campus. I checked it out right away and was excited to browse the broad range of teams represented and diverse knick knacks. I bought things I didn't need to buy. They had beer mugs, drinking cups, hats, t-shirts, parking signs, lawn gnomes, baseballs, and cooking aprons: anything you could imagine with a team logo on it.
Previously, I would have had to go online or to an official team store to find a coffee mug or shot glass with the logo of my favorite team on it.
I went back to JP Sports several times over the next year and a half before graduating and relocating. More recently my parents went there when the Cubs finally won the World Series. My mom had been a fan since an early age having grown up in Southern Indiana while her brothers were all Cardinals supporters. JP Sports gave her great customer service. They informed her when certain championship merchandise would jump back into their stock, and offered to order items for her.
After leaving the area I often thought of JP Sports when I walked into other sports memorabilia stores. I hadn't seen such a selection of sports and teams since then. Most other memorabilia stores only sold products that represented local teams and a few additional overly-popular teams. I missed JP Sports and what they offered.
I moved back to the area just as Spring Training was starting up for the 2017 baseball season. When my favorite teams start up a new season I'm always tempted to buy a new hat, unless of course my previous hat brought enough luck to the former lineup.
I went into JP Sports for the first time in years looking for a new Mets hat. They'd lost in the Wild Card game the previous season. And the year before that they fell short in the World Series final. After two years in the playoffs I had high hopes for the 2017 team that a Mets fan shouldn't have. I went to JP Sports to purchase a new hat anyway and found myself debating between two.
Not only did I buy one, but went back the next day to buy the other as well.
I enjoy going out and supporting a local business. It's a day and age where people are tempted to buy things online. It's just easier. But on the other hand it's nice to see things in person before purchasing them; touch them, try them on, and see how they look or fit on you.
I considered myself a loyal customer of JP Sports.
…until I went back a few weeks ago.
Sure, the two hats I bought weren't doing the trick and the Mets were quickly bombing. However, their minor league team was coming to town and Tim Tebow was recently called up to the squad. Furthermore, my favorite hockey team just won the Stanley Cup. For a couple weeks I'd been planning on taking a trip to JP Sports. The afternoon finally came when I was in a spending mood and felt ready to give the local business my support.
As usual, I was greeted at the door. The guy asked me if I'd been in before, what I was looking for, and if he could help me find anything. Standard. I told him I was going to check out the hockey stuff here (just to the left of the door) and then look at the baseball stuff in the back. I browsed through the hockey hats for a few moments and picked a couple up to try on before putting them back down. Then I held up a wooden sign celebrating the 2017 championship team. It was maybe three feet tall and a foot wide. I wore slim slacks and a button down shirt. I had no bag and nothing to hide. The fact that I was holding a thick wooden sign nearly the size of my torso must have triggered warning signs for my greeter. He rushed back up to me and asked what I was looking for, again. I repeated the same response as before with different wording. He seemed nervous and stuttered out something about a sale rack.
I put the big wooden sign back on the wall and humored the guy by looking at the sale rack he mentioned. I could feel him watching me as I flipped through the hanging t-shirts. Then I made my way to the baseball section to see if they had a Tebow shirt. He didn't leave my side. He played it off like it was one big coincidence that he was close enough so I could practically smell his breath the rest of the time I spent in the shop.
I get it. I've worked in retail and know that minimizing theft is a part of the job. You'd like to think it doesn't happen, but it does.
I don't know what it was that made me so suspicious to the guy. Perhaps I fit the description of a known offender, or maybe the young guy had just faced his first experience where somebody that he was helping got away with a theft. I don't know. Again though, with my slim fitting clothes and lack of bag, I can't imagine where I would have hidden something, but the guy was clearly suspicious of me.
It's not like it was just me and him. There were four other employees having a casual conference on the floor near the register. And it's not like there were other customers in the store causing a distraction that could potentially give one the opportunity to steal something; not that I would anyway.
It was five employees to one customer, and yet, I was being tailed like a Soviet jet in US airspace during the Cold War.
My presence in the store, whether I seemed suspicious or not, was dealt with disrespectfully. If there is somebody that you absolutely know is a thief and repeat offender, yes you might follow them and stare at them. However, if you're merely suspicious of somebody, it's better to kill them with kindness and give them more help than needed rather than stalk them.
As an associate, you might see what the customer is looking at and engage in conversation with them. You can create small talk and build a conversation with them off a common interest. If somebody is indeed a thief, your friendliness will likely make them uncomfortable and second-guess their motive. However, if somebody is a genuine customer they'll likely appreciate your attempts of engaging with them. They'll feel valued and might be willing to let you talk them into adding on extra items to their total purchase. When you clearly hover over somebody while hardly engaging with them you do nothing but make the customer feel uncomfortable.
Normally when I shop I'll browse around while figuring out what I might want to purchase. When I'm ready I'll grab everything at once and head to the register. However knowing I was red-flagged with suspicion for whatever reason, I picked up the hockey hat I knew I wanted and asked to leave it at the register while I continued browsing. I knew the proper approach a sales associate should take is to offer to hold something at the register anyway while a customer continues shopping anyway, so I made it easier for my man with the hopes of settling him down.
He still lingered near me as I browsed around while he awkwardly shuffled merchandise around within my peripheral.
I get it, I wanted to tell him, but you can trust me.
Instead, I asked him a question while looking at he baseball shirts. I said, "Hey man, do you guys have any Tebow stuff."
He was noticeably rattled by my question and quickly spoke into his headset. He rephrased what I'd asked him to his quartet of superiors positioned a mere few feet away. Since he had no clue I turned and talked to them directly. The rest of the crew were all personable and explained how other people had been in looking for Tebow stuff but he was called up so last minute that they didn't have time to order anything. I told them how I was a Mets fan and didn't know if I should be excited or embarrassed about his role in the organization. I joked with them and they laughed. Still, I could feel you-know-who brooding over my shoulder.
Having already left an item at the register and then engaged with the rest of the staff, I hoped I had won their overall trust. The quartet didn't seem to think twice about my presence. When it was clear the store didn't have any Tebow gear, but surely would by the next time he was in town a couple weeks later, I let them know I was ready to check out. My original greeter lurked around for a moment, but somebody else rang me out. As this happened, the greeter disappeared through a door. Maybe he was checking security cameras, despite the fact he didn't take his eyes off me the entire time I was in the store, and had nowhere to hide a potentially stolen item.
Again, I get it. I've worked in retail. Still, I acknowledged the fact that this employee treated his customer like an enemy. I knew that I wasn't there to steal anything, but also knew that he didn't know that. I was willing to let it all go.
But after I had completed my purchase and began to walk out, the guy came rushing back out from behind closed doors. I walked straight out of the store. So did he. I didn't how close behind me he was until I stopped outside to look both ways before crossing to where my car was parked. When I did so he almost tripped over the back of my feet and had to scurry to my side. That was the turning point for me when I felt like the line had been crossed.
I looked at him funny and almost asked him if he was following me, but I no longer wanted to engage with him. At this point I just wanted to leave and never go back.
I don't know if it just so happened that he was walking out of the store for a break at the same time I was leaving, but I doubted that was the case. Maybe he wanted to take a look at my licensee plate. Or intimidate me. I don't know. But I do know that this guy made me feel uncomfortable the entire time I shopped in his store. In the store of his superiors. He made no effort to be friendly with me, but succeeded in creeping me out.
Will I go back to JP Sports after this experience? No.
Will I mention this to my parents who are previous customers of the store? Yes.
Have I already told the story to my friends and coworkers? Absolutely.
And my other extended family members that happen to be sports enthusiasts and are constantly in and out of the area? Sure, I'll tell them if it comes up in conversation.
If I want a new hat in the future I'll look online. If I feel like browsing sports gear I'll find other places to look where I'll hopefully be treated with more respect. When a customer is willing to come into your store rather than going on the Internet, you have to make them feel appreciated, even loved. Your business depends on it. I wanted to support a local business that brought me much excitement when they first opened up almost a full decade ago. Instead a certain staff member made me feel like a lingering criminal. With the ability for a consumer to order things online these days with the click of a button, stores should be giving customers a reason to come in. That reason is usually for excellent service.
That guy may look back on that day and think he prevented a potential theft. But really, he deterred a returning customer.
I can guarantee that the money I would have spent there in the future outweighs what I could have stolen in a pair of skinny pants and a slim shirt. What could I have swiped? A shot glass? Maybe. The three hats I'd bought from them over the past four months added much more to their sales than that. Three hats I was willing to overpay for out of loyalty to the store. There's really nothing in the store I feel like I need, but there are things I wouldn't mind buying if I were in a spending mood.
All that guy had to do was take a moment or two and shoot the shit with me. Ask me about my favorite teams. Maybe throw a joke or two my way. I would have conversed with him about Tebow and let him know more specifically what I was looking for. I would have made my purchases and left feeling like I made friends with him. Instead, I still have these images of him avoiding eye contact with me while standing four feet away. I still hear his nervous voice mumbling in my head telling me about the sales rack. Hopefully I won't feel his eyes on me next time I go to sleep.
Nevertheless, I will not go back to JP Sports.