Here's how store detectives in the bustling supermarts catch hundreds of food pilferers each year. And, the strange thing is, the shopper who slips a ham under a coat is that nice man or woman next door

BOB COLLINS September 1 1952


Here's how store detectives in the bustling supermarts catch hundreds of food pilferers each year. And, the strange thing is, the shopper who slips a ham under a coat is that nice man or woman next door

BOB COLLINS September 1 1952



Here's how store detectives in the bustling supermarts catch hundreds of food pilferers each year. And, the strange thing is, the shopper who slips a ham under a coat is that nice man or woman next door


ONE DAY last spring in an east Toronto selfserve food market a middle-aged customer helped himself generously to the canned beef-with-mushrooms. It was a sight that warmed the hearts of the junior clerks but it troubled keen-eyed Arthur Bell, the store’s investigator. For Bell saw the customer deftly stow two tins in his pocket.

When questioned a few minutes later the shopper reluctantly peeled five dollars’ worth of merchandise from about his person. Although steadily employed in a good job he admitted having pilfered from the market for several weeks.

“I’ve been sending groceries to my poor old mother in Glasgow,” he explained in a rich Scottish burr.

“Well, I hope you at least told your poor old mother where you’ve been shopping,” responded Bell.

The man subsequently appeared in court and was fined twenty-five dollars and costs. But, though his excuse was somewhat unique, his case was merely one of dozens that week for Arthur Bell. As special investigator for an Ontario chain of supermarkets his major task is tracking down pilferers who, in a year, rob his employers of about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. His name, incidentally, isn’t Bell—for obvious reasons he and his employer insist on remaining anonymous.

Since the era of huge department stores and food markets began, shoplifting has been a headache for owners. But recently some firms have become increasingly alarmed. One department-store executive in Toronto claims the situation is unchanged but that improved detection is uncovering more cases. Others insist pilfering is definitely on the upswing, probably due to higher costs of living.

At any rate, the self-serve supermarkets, with their handy purse and pocket-size merchandise, are becoming fair game for the pilferer. In a week’s prowl through his markets Bell sees men and women of every age, income group and occupation steal everything from cigarettes to roasts of beef.

Although the total losses run into thousands, individuals usually steal about a dollar and a half’s worth at a time and rarely more than five dollars’ worth. They aren’t professional criminals. A pilferer may be your next-door neighbor—or even your wife.

Arthur Bell and the store managers have nabbed carpenters, clerks, lawyers’ wives and policemen’s wives, executives, bankers and, once, a clergyman who was later defrocked for his sins.

One store manager, a World War II veteran, caught his former commanding officer pilfering. He passed up this opportunity to even old scores and let the CO off with a scolding.

“No, pilferers aren’t the so-called criminal types,” says Bell. “They’re your wife and mine and you and me. I liken it to people playing the races. They think they’re getting a little something for nothing.”

Nevertheless, the “little something” totals up to big money, both in Canada and the U.S. In April the New York Journal of Commerce estimated that pilferers walk out with a daily haul of two hundred thousand dollars from American supermarkets. In Detroit, where an estimated two million dollars’

worth of goods is stolen each year, the supermarket operators concentrated on foodlifters in a two-day drive this spring. They flushed out fifty-seven factory workers, office workers, housewives and a professional boxer. Only one, a twenty-eight-yearold mother of two children whose husband had abandoned her, could claim she actually stole through need. She was caught with fifteen pounds of meat, including sausage, round steak, ham, bacon, roast beef and pork chops, all stuffed in the bodice of her loosely fitting dress.

Most American stores have organized staff spotting systems or employ professional detective agencies. In Canada some supermarkets rely on their store layout and an alert staff to keep check on pilferers.

Arthur Bell’s employers decided to hire a special investigator who could rove at random to cover trouble spots and also organize the efforts of store managers, who are often good amateur detectives themselves.

In Bell they found the ideal blend of police training plus an understanding of human nature. A tall straight-backed man in his fifties, with a shock of greying hair, wide blue-grey eyes and a boyish grin, Bell looks more like the average shopper than a cop. Hence he’s all the better as an investigator, able to wander unnoticed through the crowded aisles.

After twenty-nine years in the RCMP, including ten years as head of its criminal investigation branch, the new job looked like a busman’s holiday to him. He retired from the force on a Friday in 1949 and turned supermarket investigator on Monday. He soon found that the job posed problems even for a veteran Mountie.

Here, more than ever, he had to use discretion and

judgment, avoid the pitfalls of false arrest and protect his employers and innocent families from unpleasantness whenever possible. Here too, although he also checks on dishonest employees and bad cheques, he rarely meets the hardened shifty criminal. It’s usually a hardened thrifty housewife.

“In my opinion, though, women are a little more honest than men,” Bell says. “Of course we catch more women, but then, consider the proportion of women to men that do the shopping.”

Foodlifters are the people you’d least expect and usually the ones who need the merchandise least.

“The ‘down-and-outers’ take less than the others,” Bell agrees. A housewife who used to drive to market in a Cadillac was caught stealing ninety-four cents’ worth of butter and meat.

In London, Ont., this spring a housewife stole $5.37 worth of sausage, bacon, ham and cigarettes and admitted to an earlier theft. But, though she had fifty-one dollars in her purse, she refused to pay up, went to court and was fined twenty-five dollars.

Sometimes whole families go in for pilfering. A man, his wife and a thirteen-vear-old child were

caught stealing from a food market at various times and were warned to stay away. The mother does the shopping now and, so far, has a clean record.

Children are sometimes a problem but Bell tries to teach them rather than punish them, thus possibly discouraging a shoplifting career.

One day he noticed a boy (“his boots were about three sizes too big for him”) sneak some candy from a shelf, then telescope his fistful of loot up inside his drooping coat sleeve.

“Look, son,” said Bell, “if you want it that bad I’ll buy it for you.”

Sometimes kids get firmer treatment. One day Bell was warned by a cashier that a boy, a known pilferer, was loitering in the store. Bell moved in nearby and for several minutes the pair nonchalantly studied the vegetables and pinched the fruit.

Finally the boy fidgeted and asked, “You got the time, mister?” Bell pointed it out on the wall clock.

“You waiting for somebody, mister?”

“Why, no. Are you?”

The youngster hesitated.

“Look, son,” said Bell sharply, “we’re on to you. Better move along.”

Occasionally a genuine “down-and-outer” does

steal. Bell remembers the day an elderly man— obviously a new hand at theft—picked out two packages of meat, looked carefully right and left, then laboriously stuffed a package in each hip pocket. As he reached the cash register the manager approached.

“Are you going to pay for the meat?” he inquired gently.

Crestfallen, the shopper fished out his parcels.

“Now how about the money?”

The old fellow looked downcast. “Haven’t got any,” he said. He hadn’t — so they let him off with a warning.

Many pilferers, when caught, plead that they are kleptomaniacs and hence not responsible for their crimes. And there really are a few such people who cannot help but steal. In Galt, Ont., recently a housewife was caught with merchandise stolen from four different stores. She was fined ten dollars but police arranged to have her examined by a psychiatrist.

Sometimes a relative of the kleptomaniac tips the store off Thus the few true kleptomaniacs are generally known, watched

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closely and treated with discretion.

Bell knows of one elderly woman who shops regularly. After heaping her shopping bags with merchandise she attempts to sidle out, paying for only part or none of her groceries. Invariably the clerks catch her out, but she’s just as likely to drop back again in the afternoon. Though the store can warn undesirables away it never forcibly ejects them.

But the average pilferer isn’t a kleptomaniac. Supermarket officials think he or she is just an ordinary person with ordinary' selfish motives.

One supermarket executive blames it on the “pressure of economies.” With living costs zooming, pilferers feel better when they put something over on a large company.

“I think that’s partly it,” agrees Bell “A pound of butter looks bigger now than it used to. But for some people it’s a thrill—like going to the

Some food thieves, w-hen caught, say they forgot to pay for the items. Others say they've had one drink too many. Some housewives blame it on their husbands who never give them enough money to buy groceries. Almost all of them say they’ve never done it before.

One young housewife broke into tears when she was caught. The girls in her bridge club had told her how easy it was to steal from the supermarkets, she sobbed, so she’d tried it!

“Somehow I believed her,” Bell remembers. “So we let her go. You do your best to put them on the right track.”

Generally the pilferers concentrate on small flat items like packages of meat, tubes of toothpaste removed from their cartons, half pounds of butter, cigarettes and silk stockings which fit neatly into pockets, purses and coat sleeves.

In May a Toronto store manager caught a foodlifter whose pockets yielded S2.81 worth of cheese, margarine, peanuts, olives and bacon.

A less discreet foodlifter in North Bay tried to hoodwink the store with two cans of tuna fish, a can of chicken, a can of carrots, a package of candy and two cans of pineapple straining at his pockets.

Purses are the blight of an investigator’s life.

“If they’d only' cut down on the size of handbags they'd help the pilfering problem,” says Bell. But sometimes even a purse-toting pilferer gives herself away. When she’s hiding something in her handbag she carefully removes the change purse before she reaches the cash register.

Shopping bags are another pilfering aid. Some women mingle stolen goods with legitimate purchases from other stores. Some camouflage their crimes wdth knitting. Women's coats, with a tight-fitting inner cuff, are also handy' receptacles for small items.

Occasionally a true professional style is detected. A U. S. store reported catching a slim woman who donned a maternity dress with a roomy built-in pocket and walked off with entire

In Oshawa last May a store manager stopped a shopper who had SI.52 in butter, bologna and bacon in a parcel under his arm. The parcel was ally a box, wrapped in brown paper, neatly' tied but with a trap-door end. His ingenuity netted him a twenty-fivedollar fine.

But the stores are keeping pace with the pilferer. At one time food markets were built with aisles running at right angles to the cashiers’ desks. Today, with cashiers at one end and a manager’s mezzanine office usually situated at the other, * clear view can be

obtained between the aisles. Some Canadian stores find this store layout, manned by an alert staff, is protection enough. Others have installed built-in peep-holes at strategic points and oneway mirrors which, from the rear, are really observation windows.

To a trained observer, potential shoplifters reveal themselves by their mannerisms. Invariably they are furtive, darting glances at the manager or older clerks. When they load goods into their shopping bags without pausing to study' them it often arouses suspicion. If the same housewife shops three or four times a week she earns an extra glance from the staff.

Marked suspects who stock up on small valuable items are even more closely watched. One man who loaded a shopping bag with fifteen half pounds of butter was carefully scrutinized, even though he’d casually' told the clerk that he was shopping for an apartment block. Eventually' he was questioned and admitted he’d milked the store for two hundred and fifty' dollars’ worth of butter.

Even though a pilferer isn’t stopped it does not mean she wasn’t observed. Plenty of likely suspects leave the stores every day simply because the managers are not absolutely certain they still have the goods with them. Unless a manager or investigator keeps

his eyes on a suspect every single moment the pilferer may have ditched her loot behind a counter. Parcels of meat are often found on the wrong shelves at the end of a day.

The spotter must also watch closely to see where the stolen article goes —into a pocket, purse, or sleeve—then make sure the item stay's there right through the checking desk. Often a pilferer has a twinge of conscience at the last moment, pulls out * his groceries and pays for them.

For these reasons the danger of false arrest constantly haunts the investigator. A fewprofessional shoplifters take advantage of this. Some have been known to buy an item in one store, then deliberately bring it out and feign a theft in another store. When they are questioned they produce a receipt for the goods and the investigator is in hot water.

If a store manager isn’t sure of his facts he can still make a suspected thief suffer. One manager was almost—but not quite—certain that a shopper was concealing some steak. He could not risk a possible false challenge so he took up his post beside the cash register and as the suspect arrived with his groceries the manager announced, to no one in particular. “Sure would love a big juicysteak for dinner tonight!”

The shopper looked startled and

hurried through the line-up. If he reallydid get away wdth the steak it probably gave him indigestion.

Another manager suspected that a woman had concealed a half pound of butter in the front of her dress. It was wintertime so he engaged her in a long conversation beside a hot radiator. Then he let her go, well-buttered and—he hoped—repentant.

When a manager or investigator is sure of his facts he generally accosts the suspect after he or she leaves the checking desk. Politely and quietlyhe asks them to the back of the store. Sometimes a pilferer ditches stolen goods along the way.

One day Bell followed a manager and a suspect to the back room when a package of sausage dropped from beneath the latter’s armpit. When he caught up with the pair the woman was putting up a stirring argument.

“She could talk the back end off a tractor—until I produced the meat.” he recalls. “We let her go but we advised her not to shop there again.”

Some Canadian supermarkets rely on this method alone and refuse to prosecute.

“If people are seen pilfering we give them every chance to put it back or pay for it,” explains one chain-store executive. “We ask them in a nice way and in nine cases out of ten they’ll do so. We never lay a hand on them. Because of this fair and courteous treatment we often have onetime pilferers return—and even a thief spends money in your store. They know they are under the gun when they return and I don’t think it serves any good purpose to call the police.”

Bell’s employers subscribe to this theory to a limited extent.

“Shame is sometimes the most effective punishment,” agrees one of his superiors. “We often run into complete hysteria when people are caught. They’ll offer to do anything to avoid punishment or disgrace for their families. Often, you see, their husbands or wives hold responsible jobs and they don’t know their spouse has been pilfering.”

Bell who is inclined to be lenient whenever possible, does his best to embarrass pilferers, as in the case of a prosperous man who stole a fortycent item. When he offered to payBell the moneythe investigator replied. “Oh no. You’re going right back through that line-up and pay for it yourself!”

But in some cases the chain store feels warnings are not enough. Charges are being laid more frequentlyand fines of ten dollars and twenty-five dollars are more plentiful. Sentences are handed out frequently to offenders with previous records. In Sudbury this spring a man received thirty days in jail for repeated food-market thefts.

None of the stores like sending pilferers to jail because they feel it adds up to bad public relations. They hope they’ll eventually solve the problem byprevention. They want the pilferer to know that, if he continues to steal, he’ll be caught and dealt with sooner or later, perhaps when he least expects it.

There’s at least one pilferer will vouch for that. A few weeks ago he was in a cash register queue with his groceries. As he passed the cigarette shelf he selected a pack, laid it casually on the counter, pulled a bill from his pocket, tossed it over the cigarettes, then neatly palmed both bill and smokes back into his pocket.

The cashier missed the performance but the pilferer didn’t get far. For the shopper behind him in the line, also buying his Saturday groceries, happened to be the store’s special investigator, Arthur Bell, it