January 8, 1997

Buying Prejudice? Teens Say Many Clerks Treat Them As Shoplifters Rather Than Customers

Ali Krogel Shadle Park

Last year, American teens spent $109 billion on products sold in shopping malls, department stores and other retail outlets.

Yet despite the huge impact teens have on the success of American business, many teens feel they are treated with less respect than adult shoppers and that they are constantly targeted as shoplifting suspects.

Lee Thompson, 19, provides a great example. He was Christmas shopping and spent several minutes waiting at a perfume counter as a clerk helped adults who came in before and after him. He eventually made a purchase, despite the bad service.

“When we go (shopping) with adults, we get good deals and better service,” he said.

Many local teens feel shopping with an adult is the best way to ensure good service from sales clerks.

“When I’m (shopping) with an adult, clerks think they have more money so we get better service,” said Shadle freshman Shella Biallas. “It’s a stereotype.”

Stores with expensive merchandise locked behind counters do not fear shoplifters, so clerks can easily ignore teen shoppers and cater to the adult customer who may be a more likely buyer. Younger shoppers frequently cite The Bon Marche, JC Penney and Nordstrom as places where they have a hard time getting good service.

Here’s an example. On Dec. 23, a busy holiday afternoon, ordinary teens were assisted at the Bon Marche perfume counter at the NorthTown Mall after an average of five to six minutes. Adults entering the store at the same time were approached after a mere 10 to 15 seconds.

Many of the younger shoppers left the store frustrated and annoyed after finding no one interested in helping them. That’s money out the door.

Teen clothing and accessory stores, however, go out of their way to assist teen shoppers. Angela Kaufenberg, an employee at the NorthTown GAP, says it’s important to pay attention to teen shoppers, and not because they are shoplifting threats.

“At this store, it’s the teens who buy everything,” she explained.

Kaufenberg also did not see teen shoplifting as a big problem in her store, estimating that something is shoplifted from her store about once every four months.

David Mudd, the assistant manager of the NorthTown Footlocker, agreed it’s important to be attentive to teens who bring big money into his store.

“A lot of times it’s the kids who are going to pay anything for the name brand,” he said.

Sean Wheeler of Lakeside says he gets good service from stores geared toward teens.

“Sports stores give me the best service and the expensive stores ignore you,” he said.

The consensus of local teens was that the majority of clerks become helpful only when they feel they can1 make a sale.

While some teens are crying for more assistance, others just want to be left alone. Eighteen-year-old Sonny Moelkel is exasperated with sales clerks.

“They follow us around all the time thinking we’re going to steal things,” he said.

Sonny also felt he was suspected as a thief only because of the way he dressed - in baggy pants and an oversized team jacket.

Footlocker’s Mudd admitted his level of suspicion depends on a shopper’s appearance.

“Depending on their look, if their hat is flipped to the side and their pants are down to their ankles, I’m going to watch them,” he said.

Of the employees interviewed at NorthTown Mall, most agree the average shoplifter is between 14 to 18 years of age. However, the May 1996 issue of Model Retailer estimated that 39 percent of shoplifting was actually a result of employee fraud.

Many teens are tired of being labeled as a potential threat to merchandise and they may have good reason to be offended. A recent article in The Hayes Report, which featured countless crime-stopping devices, was entitled “More Shoplifters Are Coming!” The first line of the article is a direct hit toward teens, reading, “Experts predict that over the next 10 years, we should expect to see a sharp rise in crime. This will be brought about as a result of a 23 percent increase in the teen-age population over the next decade.”

Shella Biallas sums up the frustration of local teens with this comment:

“As long as I’m a teenager, I can expect to be given suspicious glances and to be basically stalked by clerks.”

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email