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Lots of email responding to yesterday’s story about a Florida Albertsons customer charged with petty theft after he was seen sampling jelly beans from an open bin of candy.

Let’s recap the story, just to be sure we’re all talking about the same thing.

The Northwest Florida Daily News reported that “the 34-year-old Fort Walton Beach man was buying groceries at Albertson’s when he stopped at a bin of candy and put an unspecified number of jelly beans in his mouth, according to an Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office report. The deputy, who was working an off-duty detail, confronted the suspect after he had paid for the rest of his groceries and asked him if the candy was good. ‘Yes,’ the suspect replied, according to the report.

“The deputy told a manager that the suspect had taken about 10 of the ‘raspberry flavored’ candies. The man denied taking more than two. He added that he’d been shopping at Albertson’s for 30 years and that he was just trying the candy to see if he wanted to buy it. The deputy ‘advised him that Albertson’s did not have free samples of candy and he should have known that if he had been shopping at Albertson’s for 30 years.’

“The man didn't buy any of the candy. The store manager on duty told the deputy that he wanted charges brought against the suspect, who was also issued a trespass warning. The jelly beans were priced at $6.99 a pound. The deputy estimated that the 10 jellybeans would have had a value of about $2. A store manager contacted Thursday confirmed that the store has a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against shoplifting.”

My view was that while shoplifting is a serious crime, and there probably are health issues involved here, it is hard to imagine that this case – and the resultant newspaper stories – will do Albertsons much good. I wrote:

If a customer tastes a couple of grapes when considering making a purchase, would that same customer be accused of petty theft? I’ve never bought grapes in my life without sampling a couple to find out how sweet or tart they may be…and I would be shocked if after doing so I felt the long arm of the law on my shoulder.

Now, I’m lucky. I happen to do much of my shopping at a store – Stew Leonard’s – where liberal sampling is encouraged…and in fact is a core value. (I can remember Stew Leonard Sr. making this point in a speech years ago…that if his store was doing its job right, the cost of such minor sampling would pale compared to the transactions that might be generated as a result of people liking what they taste.)

Don't want to be accused of being soft on crime. But I do have to wonder if this demonstrates a lack of focus on what ought to be important – getting the customer to feel engaged with the aromas and tastes of the foods being sold by the supermarket.

One MNB user wrote:

There is a fine line between sampling and shoplifting if you select a package of grapes while shopping and taste a couple to determine if they are sweet or tart that is most likely acceptable in any retail environment. Even though the FDA highly recommends washing fruit and produce before it is consumed. Not to mention retailers and grape growers have had to package grapes in bags over the last few years to stop the pilferage of grapes as well as other reasons. However if you continue to snack on the grapes as you continue to shop this is where we approach the fine line or the “grey area” of sampling shoplifting. You may ask yourself is the consumer going to buy the grapes by the time they checkout? If they do purchase them how much has been “sampled” between the produce department and the checkout?

With the ever-increasing consumer demand for “fresh” foods it makes it very difficult for retailers to control and avoid embarrassing situations like the unfortunate jelly bean incident. More and more retailers are answering the “fresh” demand with great offerings such as olive bars; self serve soup kettles and salad bars. Often the consumers think these are all displayed for sampling purposes. If the sampling practice was done in the correct way it would be okay with any retailer. However all too often it is a person sticking their hand into the jelly beans, olive bar or salad bar and sampling some and at the same time potentially contaminating the rest with germs and or bacteria from their hands. I can recall watching a woman “sample” soup in Whole Foods-Lincoln Center, NY store where she sampled four varieties of soup (in the same cup) and at the fourth decided she didn’t like it and then dumped it back into the kettle!

For the record, not only should that woman have been arrested, but she probably should have been shot.

With organic bullets, of course.

MNB user Allan J. Coviello wrote:

You are off base on your view. I am as customer-centric as you get anyone to be, but a zero shoplifting policy is one of the most effective ways retailing in the U.S. can effectively combat shoplifting. I have owned retail businesses for many years in different formats, sizes and geographies and every where insisted a zero shoplifting policy be enforced. Shopper lifters get the message really fast to avoid your store as a shoplifting target and shoppers pay less in the end. Shoppers do win!!!!....prices do not have to be increased to offset shoplifting losses. There just cannot be a gray area on this topic to shoppers, regardless of their loyalty. I have seen loyalty shoppers get picked up for shoplifting a petty item only to have them confess they had been stealing $1,000’s per year from the store.

Another MNB user wrote:

While shopping at an Albertson's before Albertson left Oklahoma I saw a Mother with her child. The Mother is on her cell phone talking to a friend while doing her shopping. The child is in the cart.

What does the Mother do but picks a banana off the display, hands it to her child to eat. Didn't pick up any other bananas. When I looked at her she started getting a little hostile and started asking me what I was looking at and then tells her friend that I am there looking at her because she gave her child a banana. I just shook my head and walked away. I guess she didn't feel that she was stealing.

What type of message is that sending to a child? It is okay to take a banana if you are shopping? I have seen folks sampling grapes and I don't have a problem with that. In fact most of the time they then put some in their cart but where do you draw the line? Should I be able to pick up an apple off the display and eat it?

I was at another local food store and saw a guy pick up a 2 liter bottle soft drink, open it, drink some of it and then put it back. I did find the manager and report it but didn't stay to see what happened.

It does bother me when I see people taking something from a display. If everyone did that prices would rise because of more shrink. Most of the time if you ask a person in the department for a sample they will be more than happy to give you one.

Another example of a customer that clearly crossed the line. Opening a bottle of soda, drinking from it, and then putting it back? Yukkk…but what you’re describing doesn’t sound like legitimate sampling to me.

Another MNB user wrote:

Regarding "Graze-O-Matics" (as we called them when I was working in the stores), all four Southern California companies that I was contracted to work with had shrink allowances built into the invoices. Now, this certainly doesn't justify theft, but I believe that it should preclude arrest. Particularly given the fact that even those of us who do not graze are actually paying for the shrink since it's factored into the cost.

I learned this along time ago when, as we (the crew I was on) were walking a new store prior to its grand opening. The chain's Director of Merchandising stopped and did a little grazing (chocolate covered pretzels). As we looked at him in amazement, he simply said, "They expect it. If they didn't, they wouldn't put the (expletive deleted) things in."

MNB user Joe Fagan wrote:

Remember you are talking about FL, you cannot put condiments, crackers, salt pepper, at a fast food place otherwise the retirees’ take it home. Bulk foods are and open invitation, whether you want them to be or not.

And, from still another MNB user:

As in most issues in life, where do you draw the line? At what point does sampling a food item become “serial samplers”? Could I open a watermelon (without help from a clerk) and take a large area from the middle and then put it back? Could I open a canned goods product?

The issue has to be considered on the type of product. In this case, the product was jelly beans and $2.00 worth was an excessive amount to sample. Punishment should fit the crime, A few hour picking up trash in the parking lot of the store should stop any sticky fingers.

Another MNB user wrote:

Albertsons could easily eliminate "tempting" the customer by having their jelly beans packaged in a 10 mill heavy duty blister pack that could be opened only with a commercial grade tool. Frankly, I'm surprised that the health department allows them to sell "loose" jelly beans. Who knows how much cross contamination there has been. I'll buy my "Jelly Belly's" at Costco, where they sample the product.

Yet another MNB user wrote:

Mark this down as one of the things that Safeway/Dominick’s does very well. If you go to their deli or bakery, you can sample anything you like. They’ll even ask you, when you are ordering your meat or cheese, if you would like a sample. They often have fruit and veggie samples out as well. And, if they have a seafood counter in the store, and you want to buy some pre-cooked shrimp, they’ll give you one as well to taste before ordering.

Another MNB user chimed in:

I agree -- shoplifting is shoplifting, but for Albertson's to make an actual criminal case out of this for a 30-year customer is not only petty (literally and figuratively) but is guaranteed to cost them a whole lot more than $2 in legal fees and bad press.

Still another MNB user wrote:

Sampling should be encouraged throughout the store. Managed properly every department where sampling can be done, it should be done. It has been proven time & time again that sampling, handled properly, builds sales. If this person was a regular Albertson's shopper he probably made annual purchases of $6000-$7000. Albertsons will lose this customer over 2 or was it 10 jelly beans ? Stupid!

I have a feeling that this conversation will continue…

KC's View: