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Shoplifting Accusation: My Dillard's Experience

Yesterday, I was accused of shoplifting. I was in Dillard's (a department store) to purchase some items with my Dillard's card, and knowing that I was planning to buy quite a bit, and that Dillard's does not have carts in its stores, I decided to bring my bags from home to help me carry the items. I honestly didn't realize I was being followed around by the store employees, because I was on a mission and in a zone. I'm usually more aware of my surroundings, and more apt to pick up cues from people's behavior toward me. This time, my brain was focused on other things.

The experience I had made me cut up my Dillard's card while I was still in the store. It also made me decide to write to the CEO. I plan to mail the cut up card directly to headquarters, along with a printed copy of the message (below) that I sent electronically yesterday. What happened yesterday triggered me. I do not like being accused of actions I would not perform. I recognize that the manager of the store who accused me doesn't know me at all. But that's my point: he could have chosen to give me the benefit of the doubt, but instead he decided that I was a criminal and treated me accordingly. It is not all on him, though. Tennessee State law on shoplifting is vague, and leaves quite a lot up to interpretation. It states that if a person enters the store with the intent to shoplift, that person is therefore guilty of shoplifting. The law allows for personal bias to creep in and make decisions for the employee. It allows for someone like that manager to assume that someone like me is lying, and that when I am attempting to defend my position, I'm using "evasive tactics."

Coming from New York, where the law is that a person needs to be attempting to leave the store with the merchandise to be considered shoplifting, I believe that a law like the one in New York State makes more sense. It allows for the benefit of the doubt, and in my case, it would have given the opportunity to demonstrate that I had every intention of buying the items in my bag. Because I was planning to buy them. The law in Tennessee lets the employee decide the individual shopper's intent. On top of that, the store's policies on not allowing shopping carts means that a person who decides to shop in-store has to choose between buying only a few items at a time and being accused of shoplifting.

Below is a copy of the message I wrote to the CEO of Dillard's. Needless to say, I will not be spending my money there again.

Good evening Mr. Dillard,

This afternoon, I had an experience in your Clarksville, Tennessee store which caused me to cut up my Dillard's card and to decide that I will never shop at any Dillard's again. I decided to shop in-store for Christmas gifts for my family members, as sometimes it is better to be able to feel and see items up close rather than online. I know that Dillard's does not have shopping carts, and I have a bad back, among a slew of other health conditions. I brought my bags to the store, and used those to help me carry the items I had planned to buy. I was planning to head to the Clinique counter, to pick up my regular supply of Clinique facial cleansing and moisturizing products, but I never got the chance.

The manager at the store (R. Hicks) came to me with a police officer and said he wanted me to come with them to the back of the store to discuss the items I had in my bag. I tried to explain that I was almost done and would then buy the items, and he accused me of shoplifting. I said that I am a Dillard's card holder, and that I was going to use my card to buy all of the items. He treated me as though he didn't believe me. He said that several employees had asked me if I needed help, and I said that in fact, they had not. I had several people ask me if I was doing all right, to which I replied that I was. And then I kept shopping. He didn't seem to believe me, and said that they saw me trying to conceal the merchandise. I stated that the store has no carts, and that I have a bad back; I cannot carry all of that in my arms while I shop. And I wasn't concealing anything. I was not making any attempt to hide my actions, because I wasn't trying to steal.

Apparently, the law in Tennessee is that if a person puts something in a bag, they are considered to be shoplifting. I am from New York, and have lived there and in other states in which the law is more sensible than that: a person has to be actually attempting to leave the premises with the merchandise to be considered stealing, and only then would someone approach them to accuse them of stealing. Given that I was planning to pay for the several hundred dollars' worth of items, I never would have gotten to the door without a receipt, and this issue never would have become one.

I showed my Dillard's card, as evidence that I wasn't planning to do anything untoward. I was willing to allow the manager to look up my available balance, which had he done so, would have shown that I had more than sufficient credit to purchase the items I had. I offered to buy the items and leave immediately after (without buying the Clinique items, which meant I would have had to go to another store to get those), and I was denied. I said that I would just leave the items right there and walk out and I was told that if I did that it would still be wrong. I really don't understand this: I was actually willing to pay for the items, even though I had been accused of a criminal activity, nothing I did to prove my innocence even mattered, this manager simply refused to take anything I said into account or find any other way to resolve the issue except one which made me out to be someone I am not.

I have multiple chronic health conditions, and I actually had a physical attack while dealing with this extremely upsetting incident. I am now at home, several hours later, and am still feeling the physical effects of that attack. I keep crying at random times, my back and neck are stiff, I'm nauseous, and my throat is still tight. I have been banned from that location, which is quite unnecessary, as I will never set foot inside of any Dillard's store again. I refuse to allow myself to be treated like a criminal, and I refuse to deal with people who will not even hear me out. That manager decided what (not who) I was, and never gave me a chance to convince him otherwise.

I did later look up the Tennessee law, and it is vague at best. It essentially leaves up to the employees to determine whether a person is shoplifting, which means that the employees are possibly (and in my case, definitely) making a decision prematurely and that the law allows them to do so. I will most certainly keep that in mind going forward, and I also plan to write to my legislators about the injustice of the unclear law.

In the meantime, it might be a good idea for your managers and store employees to take some sensitivity training and perhaps not automatically assume that a person is shoplifting. I cannot imagine how many people have gone to that store and been put through the same or even worse because they were not believed. I have worked in retail before, and I know that shoplifting does occur. But a bit more compassion and less accusation on the part of your employee might have allowed us all to remain calm and come to a resolution which didn't leave a bad taste literally in my mouth.

Thank you in advance for reading this message. Sincerely, Donna M. Dopwell, Ph.D., M.S.S.W.


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