To profile or not to profile? A retailer's dilemma.

So the video store I work in has undergone a rash of shoplifting lately. All of the shoplifters, as far as we’ve been able to determine, have been African American.

The store is kind of on the fault line between two very different neighborhoods: one of the richest neighborhoods in Seattle–we have two billionaires and two Oscar winners as customers–and one of the poorest neighborhoods. Seattle’s a relatively well integrated city; its “ghetto” doesn’t nearly approach the conditions of Chicago’s or New York’s. There’s a higher concentration of black residents and businesses in the “Central District,” but it’s not blighted or anything. It’s a ghetto in population only.

Anyway. We have a lot of black customers, and it never occurs to me to “profile” them; a couple of them are my regular classics-junkies. But for the two years+ I’ve been working here, every time we’ve had to ask someone to leave because they’re a crackhead or shoplifting or drunk or whatever, so far, they’ve all been black.

Now I know that’s not a fair sampling of the world at large. It’s only the specific conditions–and only, I realize, so far; and only, I realize, what we’ve been aware of–but insofar as one can absorb any kind of conditioning in such a situation, I find myself–we all find ourselves, my coworkers too–paying more attention to, and giving less benefit of the doubt to, black people who come in the store and A) are not recognized as customers; B) have a noticeable layer of “street”–you know, park-bench-dirt, or that lovely urine+alcohol smell; C) are noticeably, um, impaired; or D) exhibiting specific shoplifting behavior (will explain if necessary).

As I said at the top, we’ve had a whole rash of this lately. (We think one person finds us an easy mark, and then spreads the word.) To the point where one of my coworkers has taken it upon himself to follow around the store any black person who’s not a recognized regular customer. Me, I’ve suggested that if anyone seems “suspicious,” we should ask if they’re a customer, and ask them to leave if they don’t have an account with us.

The problem I’m bringing to this thread for discussion, though, is that this whole episode has made me feel like a racist.

Is there a logical solution to this problem that does NOT include the racial aspect? I’d especially like to hear from black dopers who have experienced such retail profiling. Understand, I don’t have any problem offending the actual shoplifters; whenever you kick one out they always accuse you of racism anyway. I’m just uncomfortable about the black non-billionaires who are NOT planning to shoplift, but who will unavoidably experience closer scrutiny than the white non-billionaires who come into the store.


Why not just improve security in general? Door alarms and security tags for the merchandise if you don’t already have them, video cameras that can be discreetly monitored, and a uniformed rent-a-cop or two to keep an eye on things…

Well, because the retail video rental store is a non-profit business in the post-Netflix era; my boss tells me we’re $30K in the red this year, overhead vs. income. So we’re cutting whatever costs we can, and can’t take on any new ones.

This was addressed in a column I used to teach, summarized here. It was followed up by all sorts of objections, but it makes for intersting reading.

Why not focus on the other markers? Unfamiliar customers, shifty behavior, urine smell, etc.

Well, we do. But it’s hard not to jump to certain conclusions on the ground, as far as who gets more closely scrutinized and who gets the benefit of the doubt. I guess I’m looking for shortcuts, but there really aren’t any: I need to remind myself to treat each new situation on its own merits. This is hard to do on a busy Saturday, but I guess there really isn’t another way.

See, this is the dilemma. It’s not a pretty situation, but as pointed out in your link, insurance companies tend to skate pretty close to that line too. And that’s “OK.” It’s just difficult to try to remain aware of all the factors present in this, well, dilemma when you’re having a bad day in the video store, and your copies of Shaft, Car Wash, and *Friday *keep getting shoplifted.

Sounds like the problem will soon resolve itself then.

Asking somebody you don’t recognize to leave is, I think, setting yourself up for a death blow of a lawsuit or boycott. Especially since if they claim you only did it because they were black, well… they’re right.

Well, again, race isn’t why they’d be asked to leave; the secondary behaviors I mentioned above would be what would prompt me to ask if they have an account. Writing the OP actually helped me realize that, yeah, I may find myself more likely to scrutinize an unrecognized black browser than an unrecognized non-black browser, but I haven’t actually every asked anyone to leave unless they exhibited specific shoplifting behavior.

I was just thinking about this. I did a little analysis last night trying to determine who attends an event I run. I figured that distance was the key factor - that attendees came from nearby towns and cities, and that travel is a big (negative) factor, so I ought to run marketing campaigns locally.

Turns out our attendance is much more correlated with race, of all things.

Yeah, but they gather large sets of various data and analyze that numerically. Unfortunately for the analysis (but fortunate for the situation!) you only have a few categories and a handful of data points.

I’m not saying that race doesn’t correlate with certain activities - it does - but there are tons of factors that can also correlate. Think about some other visual clues - age, clothing, posture, time of day - and you might find something surprisingly more accurate.

Profiling is the linking of identifiable traits that, as a combination, suggests a statistical relevance. That’s different than just flagging one trait. If you’re selling video’s then you might consider doing what a chain store did in my area for CD’s. They have large filing cabinets behind the counter with the actual disks and they have the empty cases out for display.

If I recall correctly, we’re talking about Scarecrow video.

Do you guys do any money raising events? Are you under the umbrella of SIFF or whatever that one other big arts group is, here?

I think your heart is in the right place, but you are making this situation harder than it needs to be. First, figure out which particular videos, and which types of videos are being stolen the most. See if there is some common theme, ie. new releases, horror, comedies. If so, move those videos to a place near the front desk that can be seen. Or, take the disc/game out of the case, and keep the physical copy behind the desk. You can put a sign up telling customers the actual discs are behind the desk.

Second, you should be greeting every customer that walks through the door no matter what they look like. Engage them in a brief conversation. Ask them if they are looking for anything in particular, etc. This is good business etiquette and it makes people aware that you know you are paying attention. For the people you don’t recognize, ask them if they have a membership, and if so if they’d like to sign up for one. If they are members, ask to scan their card. You can just make up some reason, like they are giving away random free rentals to loyal customers, and you want to see if they might get one. Or so you can make a recommendation based on their previous movie choices. Particularly with people that you find suspicious. Tell them they (unfortunately) cannot rent movies without a card, but you’d be more than happy to sign them up.

People aren’t stupid, and it pisses them off when store clerks follow them around while pretending not to. If you must keep an eye on them, at least try to strike up a conversation to get a better idea of the type of person you are dealing with. You may find your suspicions were unwarranted based on the interaction you have. Either way, hassling every Black customer who walks in the store will probably not solve your problem. It will prevent all your honest Black customers from coming back though.

CVS attracted bad publicity for security-tagging items bought predominantly by blacks, but not similar items bought by whites. They stated that they were simply tagging the items that were stolen the most. While they were criticized, I couldn’t find any evidence of lawsuits against them.

What is wrong with your own answer in the OP? Require everyone, black or white, to have a lissener video member’s card or require proof of identity. It is standard practice in registered clubs here in Sydney Australia. If I go to any club where I am a member I show my members card, otherwise I hand over my licence - some places even scan it onto their computer.

I’ve never heard of a non-profit video rental store. What is the purpose of such a store?


PS: This isn’t a thread crap I’m just curious.

This seems like the best approach to me. In addition to being more effective than trying to watch every move the “suspicious” customers make, it also avoids the risk of a confrontation developing if you try to kick someone out.

My impression was that it simply wasn’t making a profit because of competition from the online firms. I don’t think OP meant that it was intentionally a nonprofit store.

Kinda like GM.

I wonder if part of the problem is that white people aren’t as aware of the social clues of black people. I’m white and I can tell when a white person is “out of place” or suspicious in some manner, but I’m not sure if I’d be able to make as good a judgement on someone from a different sub-culture.

Well, by profiling, if you mean keeping a closer eye on certain types then I think it’s not a horrible idea.

When I used to work in a bar in Europe, we’d have a problem, occasionally, of Somali teenagers coming in and causing trouble. They’d be invariably drunk and try to steal from handbags, etc. It’s a sad but true part of humanity. We are designed to recognize patterns, hence stereotypes, etc. When one would come in the bar, not order a drink, and roam around, I knew something was up. It’s not normal bar behavior.

But in your case, I don’t think it’d be wise to follow people around your store. In a bar you can generally see everything and nobody will be wiser if you’re paying particular attention to someone. A store can be expected to endure a certain amount of shoplifting. I’d imagine your problems stem from lack of customers rather than getting ripped off.

This is why you need an alarm system like most stores. Then you don’t need to profile ever. I don’t really understand what they are stealing. Do you have the tapes/DVDs out on the actual display? I’ve never been to a video rental store which allowed people to steal tapes because they were either behind the counter, or there was an alarm system.

So really I guess your answer is to not profile and figure out a better way to protect your inventory. The free way is to put all videos behind the counter and have a renter come up with an empty box, etc. But the point is, it’s only worth doing if you seem to think shoplifiting is hurting your business. If that’s the case then it’d make sense to invest in a theft prevention system.