All five Langstrom Jewelers stores were in nice, upscale parts of town — even the Southwind store. That’s what owner Troy Evans kept telling himself as he drove to the store one Monday morning at 3 a.m. to answer an alarm call — the second in the past six months. The theft turned out to be relatively small, but Troy was concerned about the predictable loss of employee morale.
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A few days later on Troy’s day off, Patti Wilcox, his assistant of five years, took a call from a man asking whether the store had a particular high-end watch in stock. The phone’s caller ID window was of no use, as the call-in number showed as “private”. Patti told the man that the watch was available, but due to the high value and the specialty nature of the product, Langstrom preferred to arrange an appointment for showing it. The man said that he worked in a medical facility nearly 30 miles away and wanted to come see the watch that afternoon, but he would not commit to a specific time. After hanging up the phone, Patti wondered why the man would even consider driving 30 miles when there were at least two other dealers closer to him.
Several hours later, while taking care of another customer, Patti saw two men walk up to the front door. She felt an instinctive sense of concern as she quickly registered that all of the parking spaces immediately in front of the store were empty and that both men were dressed in clothes that appeared to be inappropriate for the 100-degree summer heat. She reacted quickly, having one of her associates usher her client to the back while she went to the door and told the men that the store was closed temporarily and that she could not let them in. One of the men said that he’d called about seeing a watch and demanded that she open the door. When she politely but firmly refused, the man became belligerent. Patti quietly asked an associate to call the local police.
Two police officers arrived, and after examining the identification of both men, one of the officers came into the store and told Patti that they believed that the men posed no real danger to her or to Langstrom. Patti went back to open the door, at which point the more vocal of the men began shouting that it was too late — that he would not, under any circumstances, ever consider doing business with Langstrom again, and that he was highly offended by what he called a case of racial profiling.
The following Monday, Troy received official notice of a lawsuit that had been filed charging him, Patti and his business with racial discrimination for refusing to service two African-American men at his Southwind store. He had heard Patti’s account of the situation immediately after it happened, and had already assured her that she had followed all procedures appropriately.
Knowing that Langstrom had no clearly defined policy for the use of the buzz-in door, Troy began to worry about his potential exposure in the case. The whole thing was obviously going to be very costly — both in terms of any settlement he might have to pay, and in the negative publicity the store would surely get as a result of the action — especially if he chose to fight the allegations and defend the security-conscious behavior of his associate.
1. Is it ever okay to refuse admittance to an individual who poses no overt threat, based strictly on a “gut feeling”? 2. Is there a good way to explain a refusal to serve the person? 3. How can a business owner strike a balance between extraordinary service and security management when training employees?
Expanded Retailer Responses
In our litigious society, we really can’t afford to judge the book by the cover. Each store must make its own policy, but which is the greater risk: stolen jewelry (insured) or settlement for a lawsuit and immeasurable amounts of bad press (not insured)? Of course you have to weigh the risk of violence during a robbery as well. Keep a good video security system that would adequately document the entrance from outside and inside the door. Unless there is recorded suspicious behavior that would be obvious to a judge and jury, then I think the greater risk is to refuse to service them.
Gut feelings have saved many a problem over the years for me; I would go with it. Refusal to unlock the door can be explained away due to inventory, short staff or power lock failure.
Palos Park, IL
Just like our police officers who quickly have to make decisions for their own safety based on body language, so do we. I believe she made the right call, based on all of the facts she had in the little time she had to make it. We encourage our employees that if they ever feel a sense of insecurity about patrons, they may refuse to let them in. If they believe they are in danger, they may use one of the many security measures we have in place to dispatch police. Hopefully the law will protect this store and their employee based on her actions with witness testimony.
Often, people in the jewelry industry must rely on our gut instincts. However, when it comes to people of color and communities that are constantly discriminated against, we need to be extra wary in our behavior so as not to perpetuate the same kind of treatment. It’s really helpful and honest to question your impulses — for example, am I responding to this person’s color, or is it more than that? It’s important to protect ourselves, but it’s also important to see beyond appearance when forming an initial reaction to a person entering your store.
At our store, we have two different levels of alert with code words. If someone suspicious arrives, everyone is put on alert at the first level. One person stays in the back and everyone else comes up to the front. Then one person goes out the front door and takes pictures of all of the cars in the parking lot. The second code word is used only in case of imminent danger. If she had alerted the store at the first level, it would have given everyone time to correctly assess the situation without damaging the store’s reputation.
I think that if she had told them that she needed someone more knowledgeable about the watch, it would have alleviated the situation. I then would have positioned another sales clerk to go to another room, phone in hand if they needed the police. It's important for sales people to feel safe. Better safe than sorry.
This is an unfortunate but necessary part of our business today. It is sad we are forced to choose on first impressions but must always look out for the safety of our customers and staff. I liken it to turning down certain repairs that either the customer or job is not going to end well. My feeling is the staff member acted appropriately.
New Brighton, MN
I absolutely think it is okay to refuse service based on your gut feeling. Maybe she was mistaken, but at the end of the day, their customer and her co workers were fine, no one was hurt and they all went home to their families that night. The only thing that was hurt was the man outside's pride. I think that would be the easiest of all to heal. If he were any kind of compassionate person, he would understand their need for safety.
I believe that the assistant manager acted appropriately. She should, however, have asked for his name. Even though she stood a chance of offending a customer or potential customer, she has the experience to know when a situation is "not right".
She could have said that showing the high-end watches are generally by arranged appointment and the owner is not in. "May I have your name?" and "Did someone refer you?"
She could gauge his answer and If she still felt uncomfortable, she could simply have offered, she'll have the owner call him to arrange an appointment.
Before the situation escalated to getting a lawyer involved, the owner may have taken the opportunity to invite the customer back for a face to face or better yet offer to drive out and meet him.
Explaining the circumstances in a plain, truthful manner might have the person picture his own wife, sister or daughter in the same situation.
A shopkeeper is not obliged to open his or her door to anyone, the choice is theirs.
That's a fine line to walk. On the one hand, retailers are to abide by the golden rule "don't judge a book by its cover". On the other hand, we know that shady characters have a specific profile — low-drawn hats or bulky or inappropriate clothing as in this case. Given the danger of our profession, I think it's fair to say that you can never be too careful. However, protocol does need to be in place to separate being hyper alert vs discriminatory.
We have a system in place that basically is a warning system for everyone in the store. Whenever there is even the slightest suspicion of something amiss, we have a code word to alert all hands on deck immediately. Everyone from the shop and back office stops what they're doing and comes out to the sales floor to make their presence known in a subtle but powerful way. Also, strength in numbers doesn't hurt.
Bel Air, MD
This is a no-win situation for the store, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't. I would defend these allegations of racial profiling and let the news be damned. In this instance they are defending the store's good name even if it does make the news. One way or another it would be leaked out and with no answer for it would act as an omission of guilt. In today's world, it is better to be safe rather than sorry later. The employee acted properly whether there is a store policy or not in place.
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