Cheap Products Behind Cages
When humane solutions seem unreasonable
I’ve never been much of a shoplifter. My mom snuffed the desire out of me before I could reach my true potential.
I remember trying my hand at it once. It was the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. We were in Montgomery Ward in Houston, TX, when I looked up and noticed a few things. A pack of Bublicious and my mom’s back. Both were staring at me, inviting me to put the gum in my pocket. They promised me she wouldn’t notice.
Unfortunately, the old Black lady standing behind me did. My jeans were at the bout-time-to-hand-these-down stage, and that infamous rectangle of a bubblegum packet wasn’t as inconspicuous as I imagined. The old lady pulled my mom aside and whispered something to her. My mom looked at me and didn’t say a word. She didn’t have to. That scowl was subtitled. And I was old enough to read.
You just wait until we get into the car.
That was the beginning and end of my life of crime. As I got older, there were plenty of other things I wouldn’t have minded stealing, but I couldn’t. Not because of a reformed conscience. But because of reinforced cages. I long outgrew my desire to steal bubble gum (I had enough money from my first entrepreneurial endeavor as a lawn-mower to buy as much as I wanted). The stuff that I really wanted was protected. It was expensive and always locked away behind cages, so I never had a chance.
Like I said, I’ve never been much of a shoplifter. Probably because I’ve never had to be. Shop-lifting was an extra-curricular activity for me, not a required course. We had all of our needs met. I’ve never had to steal to survive. Where I grew up, people had everything they needed, and theft of basic necessities wasn’t much of a threat to the store’s bottom lines. So the stores tended to put luxuries behind cages, not necessities.
Stumbling into a National Crisis
This brings me to my time in Phoenix last week. I got there for a few meetings and realized I forgot my razor at home. My receding hairline loves to grow back quicker than expected when I’m going to be around people I don’t know (it’s stubborn like that, always eager to show the world that I’m prematurely balding in embarrassing fashion.) So I went to Wal-Mart and tried to get a standard razor and shaving cream. Tried is the keyword. It took me much longer than expected. Why? It was locked away. Behind a cage. I had to get an attendant to unlock the cage, and even then, she wouldn’t let me continue to shop with it. She told me she would send it ahead of me to the checkout line of my choice. I could hold it in my hands when I paid for it. Apparently, there must’ve been a highly sophisticated ring of shaving cream thieves making it hard on Gillette. So they put up appropriate precautions.
I had a couple of hours between meetings, and I’m a curious person, so I decided to patrol the rest of the store and see what other exciting things I might find locked away behind cages. Here’s one of the most surprising.
Underwear (hereinafter referred to as ‘drawls’), a-shirts, toothpaste, and undergarments. Like the razor, you couldn’t just buy them outright. You had to have an attendant walk with you and take them to the register. (I’ve seen fewer precautions taken when walking someone to a safe-deposit box). If you still had shopping to do, they’d send the drawls ahead of you, and you could pick them up when you paid for them.
Why are the cheap things behind cages? My previous criminal experience helped me deduce the answer pretty quickly. First, people at that Wal-Mart were stealing drawls and toothpaste. Second, the store was losing enough money on the theft of those items that it became a problem for their bottom line. Finally, they decided to put the drawls and toothpaste behind cages.
Almost instantly, I was transported back to my neighborhood Kroger. They did something similar in the West End. A few years ago, they erected a border fence around the diapers, baby formula, deodorant, soap, and toothpaste. You have to walk into an enclosed area where you’re closely monitored to even browse. It even has its own register where they check you out immediately upon your exit. Apparently, the sophisticated theft ring of basic necessities is a national crisis.
When One ‘Why’ Isn’t Enough
I’m a curious person, so one “why" isn’t enough. Why are the cheap things behind cages is one question whose answer is pretty easy to understand. The next question is a little more unsettling.
Why are people in certain neighborhoods stealing cheap things? For this question, we have to do a little more digging. Is their stealing like mine at Montgomery Ward? Is it extra-curricular, or is it a required course? Understand, these ain’t designer drawls. These ain’t designer baby diapers or clothes or cologne. Or even Axe Body Spray. It’s regular ole’ Hanes. Basic, unscented deodorant. Necessities, not niceties. Hygiene and health.
Why do billion-dollar corporations assume that the best way to protect their bottom line is to spend staff time and resources guarding drawls against being stolen? Why not spend time and resources providing necessities to under-resourced communities, so they don’t have to steal to survive?
Again, I didn’t ask anyone this question. I looked on the website’s FAQ’s and unfortunately, these questions aren’t frequently asked enough. I assume the answer is simple. It’s not their responsibility to meet the needs of the surrounding communities. They are a store. A corporation, not a charity. To spend their time looking to solve the problems of the under-resourced communities they’re in (even the most basic problems) seems like a pretty unreasonable expectation to have placed on them. And that is the problem.
When your goal is to protect your bottom line, humane solutions somehow seem unreasonable!
There’s Gotta Be a Better Way
This shouldn’t be so. There is a better way. There has to be.
With that, I’m done. This is a thought. This is a place for my thoughts. My early morning musings, and I wanted to invite y’all into them. Remember, this is a thought, not a solution. Like John Dewey says, “A problem well-defined is a problem half solved.” This is me trying to look at the problem beneath the problem and not wanting to wait until I’ve thought things all the way through before I share them with you!
I’m an extrovert and a verbal processor. I need to drive dialogue in order to navigate through the fog of conclusion into clarity. That’s why you’re here. I hope you’d be more than just a spectator (or stalker) and join as a conversation partner.
Thoughts? (Leave a comment or reply to this email if it finds its way into your inbox.
I appreciate the thought process you walked us through. With experience working in corporate retail, protecting the bottom line through strategies of limiting shrink is the goal.
Having changed careers to software engineering and finding myself in a fascinating entrepreneurial startup/business world, it is very clear that the money exists for this to happen but the heart to give, without the spotlight on the companies 'service' is more difficult to navigate.
But I wonder what potential solutions would look like.
Thoughts I have are:
Starting with prayer and taking heart in Paul's prayer, 'To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.'
1) a non-profit that is subscription based and whatever is received goes to buying these basic items and having centers in cities that distribute them.
2) a Christian startup/business network that joins the model of building a business that is acquired in 4-7 years and distributes that acquired money to these places to make basic standard of living not a cycle that works against itself.