Never trust your neighbors

    A few weeks ago I came into contact with the most ruthless, merciless, cutthroat businessperson Iíve ever had the displeasure to run across.
    She was 60 years old, but her style had not taken her far. She was the owner and operator of a small gift shop in one of the nicer San Francisco hotels.
   Itís a story that simply amazes me, but Iím biased. Not only was she a fellow retailer, but one of her victims was me.
   The story begins last May when the manager of one of my retail stores noticed almost an entire shelf of merchandise missing. It was restocked, but a week later most of the merchandise was gone again.
    It was clearly the work of a professional who would not be easily caught. He returned a few more times, always at odd hours, and got away with an estimated couple of thousand dollars worth of goods.
   We couldnít catch him. Finally, we moved a camera directly over the area he preferred to hit and captured him, but only on tape.
   The next time he came in my manager recognized him from the video. But the shoplifter, in his 50s and well-dressed, sensed someone watching him and left the store without taking anything.
   My manager followed him for a few blocks and watched as he used a key to go through a side door of the first- class hotel. Unable to get in, my manager observed through a window of the gift shop as the man went behind the counter and opened his duffel bag to show the woman working the store his latest booty.
   My manager returned to our offices, where he ran into one of our sales reps who also sold to the hotel gift shop. The sales rep said the owners were an older woman and her husband, but the husband was seldom there. He then described them as best he could, and his description of the husband matched that of the shoplifter.
    When this was reported to me, I refused to believe it. Talk about an enterprising businessman. All I could think of was how they handled their annual meeting with their accountant.
    Accountant: Well, youíve done it again, Fred. The average cost of goods sold for your type of business is 50 percent, but for the 12th year in a row your cost of goods sold is 3 percent. How do you do it?
    Fred: Easy. I know where to shop.
    "What should we do?" asked my manager.
    "Iím not sure," I said, still amazed that anyone could be that bold. "I donít know whether to arrest him or hire him."
    I was obviously only kidding. We went up to the hotel and wandered innocently into the gift shop. The woman behind the counter was apparently the owner. She greeted us warmly, not realizing we were about to shatter her life.
   When we checked the shelves, we couldnít believe our eyes. There was our merchandise. She was so brazen she hadnít even bothered to take our price tags off and replace them with her own.
   Other stores in the area had also been hit. Some merchandise actually had the name of the victimized store on the price tag.
   Absolutely incredible. We contacted the hotel management and then we jointly called the police. The hotel people gave us a better description of the husband. He was not the shoplifter. But the woman was surely buying stolen goods. Their cost of goods sold may not have been 3 percent, but it was a lot less than ours.
   We went back to the shop and confronted the woman. The hotel manager stated her lease would be terminated. Then the police came and said that if she was knowingly buying stolen merchandise, she could be convicted of a felony and sent to jail.
   She began to cry uncontrollably. Sobbing, she said she didnít know it was stolen. She said the man said he was going out of business. It also slipped out that she would often give the shoplifter food in exchange for merchandise.
   It was a pathetic scene, but I had no sympathy for this old woman. She was cutting the throats of her fellow retailers. As she bawled away, claiming her innocence while calling her attorney and fruitlessly searching for non-existent receipts (from Shoplifters Incorporated?), Iím not ashamed to say I enjoyed every minute of it.
    We caught the shoplifter the next weekend. He was stealing the same old stuff, unaware that his market had dried up and he was out of business anyway.
    At least thatís what Iíd like to think, even though I sense Iím wrong.



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