Marco Mitrowke, loss prevention manager for the local retail clothing chain Everything 5.99, was not what I expected. The job title “loss prevention manager” conjured images of a strapping, muscular young man wearing a T-shirt one size too small in order to show off the biceps he uses to pummel shoplifters. I envisioned a utility belt bristling with handcuffs, Taser, and pepper spray. I pictured the wearer of that belt scanning a bank of monitors showing live video streamed from security cameras around the store, ready to burst out of the office at any moment to tackle a shoplifter.
Mitrowke was that guy, or something like him, when he launched his loss prevention career 32 years ago. “When I started out, at JCPenney in Santa Ana,” says the portly 52-year-old, “that was a really rough area, and I did some stupid stuff. I remember reaching inside a car with four or five young Hispanic males, pulling out their car keys, and the guy sitting in the car yelling, ‘Give me my keys back.’ And I said, ‘No, I am not giving your keys back. The cops are on the way.’”
Another memory sparks a smile on Mitrowke’s heavy-featured face. “I remember one of the very first shoplifters I chased out of a door. I was running after him, and I went around some cars and there he was. So I grabbed him — and I was a young man, just out of the Marines — and I body-slammed him. He was calling me all kinds of names and trying to fight back, and I was whaling away at him. All of a sudden somebody hit me on the side of my head. It was my training officer. He said, ‘What the f—k are you doing? You are not the judge and jury. Your job is to grab him and bring him back inside. Let the cops do this.’ ”
Mitrowke, dressed in a black, collarless sport shirt, sits in a back office at the Everything 5.99 store on Broadway in Chula Vista, one of 11 such stores in the county. Mitrowke coordinates loss prevention in all of them, plus in three Z Fashion stores operated by the same owners. There’s no bank of monitors in the closet-sized office, only one monitor split into a dozen or so tiny frames. But the camera system isn’t working today. And Mitrowke isn’t wearing a police utility belt — known as a Sam Browne — either. “I do have handcuffs.” Grinning, he pulls a pair of cuffs from the pocket of his khakis.
But Mitrowke’s system of loss prevention is designed to not have to use them. “For some companies, it’s still cops and robbers,” he says. “The Targets, the Wal-Marts, they have shoplift agents that actually work undercover on the sales floor. And by using cameras and people on the floor, they watch customers and then they wait for customers to leave the store, they apprehend them, bring them back in, and they make a citizen’s arrest. They hold them for the police, and the police come and take them away. If you go next door to Target, when you walk in, you see guys that actually look like policemen. They have guys wearing uniforms with badges. They’re wearing the Sam Brownes, and they have handcuffs and whatever else the company allows them to wear, and they basically stand there at the door and they control the box, as they call it.”
Mitrowke labels such techniques “abrasive” and says he strives for “nonabrasive” loss prevention in the stores he manages. “I don’t want you to misinterpret this,” he says, “because we do catch people and we do prosecute 100 percent. But we try to deter shoplifting through giving people great customer service. For example, when people come into the store, we want to greet them, we want to give them shopping carts. A lot of times customers get real annoyed by that. They go, ‘No, I don’t really want one.’ So we tell our employees to just walk up and say ‘Here’ and walk away. They are going to either use it or they are not. Shoplifters are not going to like all that attention. Because the ultimate goal of shoplifters is to get in and get out without you seeing them or recognizing them. So one of the tools that we use, and probably the most effective one for us, is just giving great customer service. Now, sometimes that doesn’t work, so we use another nonabrasive technique that we call security pages. And what we do is, when we spot someone doing something suspicious, one employee will get on the PA and say, ‘Security, you have a phone call on line one.’ Somebody else in the store will respond, ‘Thank you, I have it.’ And 99.9 percent of the time, the person that is stealing will drop what they have and walk out.”
If the crook doesn’t get the hint, Mitrowke says store employees will flood the area around the shoplifter and straighten up the nearby racks. If that’s still not working, he or another employee will talk to the shoplifter directly, though not to make direct accusations. “In our National City store,” he says, “I saw a lady pick up four of the same blouse and take them off the hangers. That’s a shoplifting indicator, because most people don’t shop by taking things off the hangers. They only pick up one item at a time. Well, this lady took them off the hangers and stuck them inside her purse. I started looking around and I noticed there was an elderly lady nearby, and I thought, ‘They are together.’ After 20 minutes of me following this lady around, I saw this guy come in the door, and I could tell he was with them. He was six foot four and 200 pounds. And I thought, ‘Do I stop her outside and make a big issue out of this and have this guy probably pounce on me, and maybe have the older lady have a heart attack, and have it all get really ugly’ — and these scenes do get ugly — ‘or do I use my common sense and get what we call a recovery?’ So what I did was, I walked up to the lady and said, ‘Hi, how are you?’ She said, ‘Good.’ I said, ‘You know, those red blouses would look really good with those jeans over there,’ and I walked away. By the time she got up to the front, she had already pulled them all out. So at the end of the day, I recovered four shirts, but I also saved myself from having to get involved in a big, crazy situation that I may have not been able to control.”
It’s that system of customer service and “security pages” that Mitrowke stresses to Everything 5.99 employees. He’s forbidden them from attempting confrontational enforcement. In a December 2007 intracompany newsletter, Mitrowke wrote, “Recently, we have had several situations where store employees and management have taken it upon themselves to go after shoplifters way beyond the scope of their authority. Some have chased shoplifters down the street and as far as a block away. This is not only against company policy but also very dangerous. Please take time to read the attached article and think about what you’re going to do next time a shoplifter takes off running. Is 5.99 merchandise more valuable than your life?”
The article Mitrowke attached was a July 26, 2007 Union-Tribune report on the fatal shooting of a security guard at a Kmart in Ramona. The guard, David Busby II, was shot by shoplifter Andrew Griffith, whom he tried to prevent from leaving the store with merchandise worth $86. “We have a saying in loss prevention,” Mitrowke says, “ ‘When in doubt, let them out.’ For me, if I have a feeling that I don’t like, I am going to let them walk. If you want to fire me, fine, but I am going home at the end of the night.”
Mitrowke wants his staff to stop problems before they get out of hand by spotting shoplifters. He teaches them to look for signs, such as people walking in with huge purses, shoppers wearing excessively baggy clothes, and customers sporting coats when it’s not cold outside. And he teaches them to read shoppers’ body language. He walks out of the back office into the store, which is supermarket-sized, though without the high shelves. The clothes hang on chest-high racks. Standing near the south wall, we can see the length of the store to the north wall. Maybe two dozen shoppers wind their way through the racks, while 10 to 12 blue-vested employees work the room. “If you look at these shoppers,” Mitrowke explains, “you see how they look at things. They spot something that interests them, they pick it up without removing it from the hanger, they lean back, and they hold it out in front of themselves to look at it. If they want the item, they either drape it over their arm or put it in a shopping cart. So when I see someone hug the rack like this,” Mitrowke steps up to the rack in front of him so that he’s brushing up against the clothes, “their eyes are up and looking around, but their hands are down — I know that’s a shoplifter. Someone who does this,” he pulls five blouses off their hangers in one motion, “is not a shopper.”