My greatest caper came when I was 15 and brilliantly stole a car stereo from Wal-Mart in Branson, Mo. Back then, the greeter put a green sticker on anything you brought in, so I purchased a cheap Roadmaster stereo, brought it back and clandestinely put the green sticker on a fancy Sony stereo (with auto-reverse cassette!) and walked out the front door. They stopped me in the parking lot, but I showed them the green sticker, and they let me go. Ocean’s 11, anyone? That’s right, people, I am that slick.

Since then, though, I have not done a lot of stealing. While I do have some trouble periodically with “laws,” and authority (and sometimes I drive too fast), shoplifting just isn’t my thing.

So it was with great surprise to be confronted at Sportsman’s Warehouse a while back right in the middle of the store by an employee accusing me of stealing 99-cent flies.

Here’s what happened: My friend Andrew and I were looking over the flies, and he was putting some in the plastic cups the store provides. We were discussing the merits of the black ant vs. the Woolly Bugger, dries vs. nymphs, the color chartreuse.

At some point, a Santa-Claus-looking worker steps up and says: Hey, guys, when you’re getting flies, go ahead and put them in these plastic cups and not in your pocket.

I looked over at Andrew’s cup, which had a half-dozen or so flies in it, then it occurred to me: My pocket? Wait, are you accusing me of putting flies in my pocket? Of stealing? Really?

Santa said that, yes, “someone” said they saw me put flies in my pocket, and he motioned to the observation deck surrounding the store. “Someone.” Is that someone a manager? Because it’s a crowded Saturday afternoon and this guy’s just publicly shamed me and accused me of stealing 99-cent flies. I’m going to need to talk to someone about this. I might have suggested he put his hands in my pockets to see what might be in there. I might have also told him that if I were to steal anything from this store, it would be big and expensive and I would get away with it. I might have caused a small scene.

Couple things here. You have a pretty irate customer on your hands asking to talk to a manager who’s upstairs, don’t just hand him the phone. If you’re a manager and you just called someone out wrongly, you take the time to march your ass downstairs and apologize in person.

Eventually, of course, the manager finds the time to come downstairs. He explained to me that they were using what’s called “enhanced customer service,” a loss-prevention strategy wherein a worker approaches a shoplifter and offers exaggerated service. This lets the shoplifter know he’s caught, and what will likely happen in most cases is the thief will go to another part of the store and dump the goods. Enhanced customer service would have looked something like this: Hey, guys, I see you’re considering the Blue-Wing Olive. Nice choice. You might also consider the Elk-Hair Caddis or the Parachute Adams. Can I tell you about our San Juan Worms?

Instead, Santa offered “hey, don’t put shit in your pockets” as his “enhanced customer service.” The manager explained that, yes, they really blew it on implementing that tactic. He explained, too, that they’ve been having a lot of trouble with people stealing flies and that they might be overly suspicious. So I got caught up in a botched-up loss-prevention maneuver because they can’t protect their inventory properly.

I wrote a letter to district manager Mike Murray out in Utah, because I had some suggestions.

A couple of ideas for what seem to be some serious problems in the Colorado Springs store:

  • If the “enhanced customer service” strategy is a proven theft deterrent, workers should be trained to use it properly. Simply accusing someone (wrongly) just creates tension.
  • If I’m a manager of a store, and this mistake had been made, I’d be on the floor before the customer even asked for me. I’d be there in person to apologize personally and in earnest. I would not have my employee hand the customer a phone. I would certainly not blame the fiasco on an overreaction because we’re unable to prevent theft.
  • If enough of your inventory is being lost to theft, it’s probably time to look at alternative display methods. Or perhaps it would be worthwhile to redistribute staffing from an area of the store that sells harder-to-steal items (boats?) to the fishing area.

A few weeks later, Mr. Murray wrote back: A tepid, one-sentence “thanks, I’ll look into it” email. “Enhanced” customer service? I’d settle for regular customer service at this point.

Everybody be cool this is a robbery, Sportsman's Warehouse, Colorado Springs
Everybody be cool, this is a robbery! I'm going to walk around with this bag, and I want you to put all your fly fishing gear in there: flies, snips, strike indicators, floatant. Don't be a hero.
Sportsman's Warehouse Colorado Springs
Sportsman's Warehouse's new fly-fishing display (proposed).
Sportsman's Warehouse, Colorado Springs
The elusive and highly prized Black Woolly Bugger.