Unseen eyes of Ashland

When most people walk into a grocery store, they notice the smells from the bakery, the display of flowers or ads for the day's specials. When Dan Fisher walks into the store, he sees women carrying giant purses, men wearing baggy pants with big pockets, teens walking with their arms just a little too straight.

Fisher is the sole security guard at Market of Choice, where he enforces the store's zero-tolerance policy on shoplifting, watching for the tiniest tip-offs that a shopper just slipped a stick of deodorant into his pocket or a tube of lip balm into her purse.

He has made 72 arrests this year, compared to a chain-wide average of 42.

After four years of observing customers' quirks and shoplifters' tricks aided by 20 cameras that leave no corner unguarded, Fisher said he has probably seen it all.

"People will do the most unusual things in the store if they don't think anybody's watching them," he said. "If you can think of it, they've probably done it. I have seen some crazy things."

He's watched a man drop change while paying for a soda, unable to pick it up because he had a ham stuffed in his pants. He's seen people push entire carts full of stolen groceries out the front door when they thought no one was watching. He even helped the Ashland Police Department catch the main suspect for 22 burglaries after the man stole a carrot cake. The giant coat he was wearing in the 100-degree heat tipped Fisher off.

Fisher spends most of his time in a tiny room with seven monitors in the back of the store, where he can track customers' every move, often with more than one view. The cameras allow him to read labels on products, prices on the checkout screen, even birth dates on fake IDs.

After so much scrutinizing of shoppers, Fisher said he can follow his gut when he sees suspicious behavior. Customers loitering near small, expensive items such razors or vitamins who are studying the people and not the products send a strong signal. So do those carrying single objects close to their pockets or open bags. He watches extra closely whenever they turn a corner.

But Fisher has learned not to judge anyone based on appearances.

Who steals?

"You can't profile in this industry," he said. "The most professional looking business man can walk in the store and stuff a sushi, and the dirtiest looking ragamuffin will buy a $37 bottle of wine and crepes. You just never know."

In fact, most of the people Fisher arrests are carrying more than enough money to pay for the item. With the exception of children, shoplifters are arrested indiscriminately. Some of the saddest cases he has seen are elderly people who steal because they crave attention and "it's the only thing that gets their heart going," he said, such as the 85-year-old grandma who pilfered two pints of ice cream. He had to arrest her anyway.

Although Fisher must be able to prove intent to steal and the number of arrests is much lower than the number of people he reminds to pay for their items, some people still question the strict policy that bans shoplifters from ever reentering the store.

"I've had parents call and complain, 'How could you arrest my 12-year-old for stealing a corn dog and soda?'" Fisher said. "If I don't stop them now, what message is that sending, that in two years when he's in high school, it's okay to steal a 12-pack of beer?"

Fisher's boss Dave Mollgaard said there are no quotas, and he would like to see even fewer arrests. But the small, family-owned chain cannot just write losses off on its taxes like bigger competitors can.

"We can't afford the loss," he said, adding that the $22,000 camera system has paid for itself five times over, although the department as a whole does not make money because of staff salaries.

Competitors weigh in

Other area supermarkets said they have similar policies to Market of Choice, where shoplifters cannot return, but they catch far fewer thieves.

"It's definitely less than Market of Choice," said Shop N Kart Store Manager Eric Chaddock. "I don't know it that's because we have less, or we just catch less."

Phil Johnson, floor manager at the Ashland Food Cooperative, said his store catches fewer than 10 shoplifters each year.

Safeway comes closer to the number of shoplifters Market of Choice catches, with 1,075 cases last year between 15 stores, said Ray Leach, a loss prevention investigator for the area. That averages to about 72 per store, but the rates could vary widely depending on the location of the store, he said. In most cases, customers caught shoplifting are banned for three to six months, although some can be banned for life, he said.

Safeway stores do not have full time security officers, and not all stores have cameras, although they will by next year, he said. Overall, the Ashland Safeway lost $59,800 to theft according to store estimates, with another $40,313 recovered from shoplifters.

Fisher aims to prevent those kinds of numbers from damaging the bottom line at Market of Choice.

Although he admits some people get away from him, he is confident he will eventually catch any repeat offenders that cross his store's threshold. The more people get away with stealing, the more comfortable they become, and the more mistakes they make, he said.

And while he's waiting, he will go on sharpening his powers of observation and watching all the odd behavior his cameras capture.

"I enjoy what I do. I definitely do," he said.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . To post a comment on this story, go to .

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