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Easy Targets

A rash of burglaries at Memphis discount stores has helped push the city to the country's second-highest crime rate.

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The Family Dollar store in Southgate Shopping Center loses an average of $2,000 a month to burglaries.
On March 10th at 2:30 a.m. most Memphians were in bed, savoring a few more hours of sleep before work. But for one man, that early morning hour was a time of opportunity.

The thief used a sledgehammer to knock a hole into the back wall of a Dollar General store at 2228 Lamar, then crept inside, grabbed some items, and escaped the way he came in. Total time: 16 minutes. Witnesses: zero. It was four hours before someone noticed the hole in the wall and notified police. The thief was long gone, leaving store owners with a mess to clean up, a wall to repair, and inventory sheets to modify. For police, it meant adding another tally to the city's growing number of business burglaries.

Later that same day, police responded to a burglar alarm. This time, surveillance tape showed a man entering a Fred's Discount Store after breaking the front-door glass. Once inside, the man grabbed cartons of cigarettes, stuffed them into a plastic bag, and left. It was the second of 11 business burglaries reported on March 10th.

It's a disturbing trend in Memphis: Discount stores are being robbed with record frequency. Dollar General, Family Dollar, and Big Lots, chain stores selling discounted merchandise, have become significant targets for burglaries (see accompanying chart). Consequently, the Memphis Police Department has launched an all-out effort to curb these crimes and to assist store owners and managers in taking preventative measures.

Crime of Opportunity

 

Memphis discount chains are plagued by burglaries, despite increased security. This chart shows a disturbing trend.

So far this year, Memphis police have recorded 587 business burglaries. In 2003, there were 2,770 such crimes, up from 2,720 in 2002 but less than the 3,219 recorded in 2001. In 2002, almost 45 percent of burglaries nationwide occurred in the South.

Burglaries should not be confused with robberies, says Memphis Police Department burglary bureau commander Billy Garrett. A burglary occurs when a person enters a business or home to commit a crime. Robbery involves taking property while in the presence of the victim, either through violence or threat.

Memphis police counted 156 discount store burglaries in 2003, 177 in 2002, and 139 in 2001. These numbers have helped garner Memphis the second-highest crime rate in the nation for cities with a population of more than 500,000. Only Tucson, Arizona, outranks Memphis in 2002 FBI crime statistics.

"Many times, burglaries are just crimes of opportunity, and in the scheme of things, these are considered petty crimes," says Garrett.

Still, police director James Bolden has made burglaries a priority, beefing up the burglary bureau to 34 investigators and starting collaborations with the crime prevention bureau and area businesses. This focus has paid off, says Garrett, who cites more than 1,600 arrests made last year and a business burglary clearance rate of 13.5 percent, half a percent higher than the national average. Garrett attributes the burglary problem to a larger issue: "Memphis' major problem is substance abuse -- drugs and alcohol. If we could find some way to combat that problem, a lot of the other crimes we see could be drastically decreased."

Easy Targets

For discount stores, the problems are exacerbated by their location in poor neighborhoods, workforce limitations, high corporate expectations, and even the type of merchandise on store shelves. These conditions work together in a kind of malignant harmony to negatively affect daily operations.

"I've had cars backed through the front doors of my store by people trying to steal," says Citi Trends store manager Alzeda Nickelberry. Standing in her enclosed cubicle/office, the 25-year retail veteran rattles off incidents on her fingers. In her three years at the 1967 S. Third Street location in the Southgate Shopping Center, she estimates about 15 burglaries have occurred. "We sell a lot of popular name-brand clothing and that's what [criminals] take because they can resell it on the street," she says. "When our weather changes, we get a lot of problems, since many [burglaries] happen when it gets warmer." The store has reinforced its security bars, added more surveillance cameras, and raised customer services counters.

Police records show Nickelberry's store had five burglaries last year, with two in April. Her store is one of six Memphis locations of the Savannah, Georgia-based retailer, which sells clothing, shoes, and accessories for men, women, and children. The store's motto is "Fashion for less."

The FBI estimated burglary losses in the South in 2002 at $3.3 billion, with an average value of $1,549 per offense. Because of the type of crime and the areas where crimes occur, recovery of goods and cash is difficult.

Citi Trends' Web site describes prime real estate locations for its stores as a "tenant mix comprised of dollar stores, rent-to-own stores, beauty supply, and other value-priced retailers," with its target demographic being households with a median income under $35,000.

In Memphis, such sites are in strip shopping centers or shopping malls in poorer neighborhoods from Frayser to Hickory Hill.

"These kind of stores are easy targets because of where they're located," says Jane, a Family Dollar store manager in Frayser who didn't want her last name used. Although it has been about a year since the last burglary at her Frayser Boulevard location, she has been robbed by criminals as young as 6 years old. She pushes back a dolly full of boxes to reveal a plywood-covered hole where criminals broke in through the wall. "Out here, we've got poor people, people looking to get by. People break in and take whatever they know someone out there will buy."

Risky locations and discount prices go hand-in-hand because the benefits of such locations far outweigh the problems, says Dollar General corporate spokesperson Andrea Turner. Speaking from company headquarters in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, Turner says, "Our stores are in areas where people are most in need of the products that we sell. We sell to a niche market of underserved customers that are on low or fixed incomes and senior citizens. We recognize that the areas are high crime areas, but we have to serve our niche."

In 2003, the Dollar General chain listed loss of revenue for unaccounted for, or "shrink," merchandise as 3 percent, or $207 million, of the company's $6.9 billion revenues. While the number includes merchandise lost to damage and accounting errors, most of the loss was due to theft. Only nine of Dollar General's 6,800 stores are in Shelby County. Police records for the last three years show the six stores with only three burglaries.

For rival discount chain Family Dollar, based in Charlotte, North Carolina, business burglaries in Memphis are an ongoing problem. Police records show 28 break-ins for 15 of its 34 locations in the city during 2003.

The company, which reported $81.4 million in earnings in the second quarter, averages $9.13 per customer transaction. Unlike Dollar General, a Family Dollar spokesperson refused to discuss the burglary situation in Memphis. Columbus, Ohio-based Big Lots, which operates four Memphis stores, also declined to comment.

At the 4433 S. Third Family Dollar in South Memphis, which reported four burglaries last year, the manager refused to discuss any of the incidents. "We've got metal bars [on the windows and doors], and we haven't had any problems," he said. But records show the business was burglarized three times within 14 days last April.

In the company's Southgate Shopping Center location, manager James Wright talked freely about his store's problems. "We do experience a lot of burglaries, and divide them into two categories: those we see, and those we don't see," he says. "Those we see, we press charges against." Wright sees no end to the problem. Just two days before, a new reinforced steel security door had to be installed at the back of his store after a burglar used a crowbar to pry open the original lock.

In addition to cash and clothing, the most popular items stolen from Wright's store are hair and beauty accessories, including permanent kits and deodorant. Clothes are resold on the street, usually by drug abusers. Wright has responded by installing an alarm system, motion detectors, and cameras within the store and attaching security tags to clothing.

Wright has also dealt with employee crimes, including those who "hook up" friends and family with free merchandise, as well as monetary theft. Six months ago, an employee staged a robbery, telling Wright that armed men broke into the store during his shift, threatening him and taking money. The story was discovered to be false and the employee was caught with $6,000 in stolen company funds. Wright says many of his store's problems can be attributed to its location. "I used to manage a [Family Dollar] store on Perkins and it was much better than this one," he says. "The [amount of] crime has a lot to do with the area."

Whitehaven Family Dollar store manager Mike Jones echoes Wright's concerns but also blames the company for a lack of staffing. "We're targets because we don't have enough people working in our stores," he says. "Many times, it's only three people working the whole store. When it gets busy, I've got to put both of them on the registers, leaving me alone to patrol the store." Jones works almost 70 hours a week, usually seven days a week, to meet the company's earnings goals.

Jones says the company also mismanages inventory. His stockroom is overflowing with merchandise. "It's hard to maintain control in here," says Jones, pointing to boxes stacked to the ceiling. "Someone could easily hide here between these boxes, wait until we leave, and have their way. Or worse, they could surprise you with a gun to your head while you work back here."

Family Dollar locations have been plagued with more burglaries than any other local discount chain in the last three years. Memphis police won't say for certain, but the numbers indicate some sort of organized effort. "We have our share of suspicious situations," says Garrett. "It's really tough for the business owners to get good-quality workers. We advise employers to trust them with just what they need to know. If their area of responsibility is stocking merchandise, don't extend them to working cash registers."

At Jones' Millbranch location in Whitehaven, three incidents have occurred during his year-and-a-half tenure. He thinks they all could be employee-related. "The problem with people [in Memphis] is that they want something for nothing. In other places where I've managed stores, we didn't have these problems as much," says Jones. "Here they'll beg you for a job and then they don't want it. A lot of these crimes could be inside jobs because they [employees] know where to go."

Fixing the Problem

Garrett says increased police presence has begun to work. Officers from large precincts, as well as smaller community COACT units, patrol the neighborhoods where most of the stores are located. The Southgate Shopping Center even has a COACT unit based there.

In addition to increased visibility, police have installed COBRA alarms in many businesses. The alarms, which cost around $2,500, are installed free of charge by the department and transmit a signal to the police when a store is burglarized. Alarms are moved from business to business as needed. The program is funded through law enforcement grants and taxpayer funds. Police also coach owners and managers on instituting safer business practices, including better internal controls like drop boxes for cash, better screening of potential employees, and common sense.

"Generally, the smaller the business, the more lax the security," Garrett says. "If care was taken to do little things, like not displaying or counting large sums of money in front of customers, it would really help a lot."

For Family Dollar managers, the fight against buglary remains a challenge. A Hickory Hill Family Dollar store was burglarized last Wednesday. Police found no fingerprints and a security camera at the location may not have been working.

"You can never stop it," says Wright, looking around his store. "All you can do is try to control it."

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