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Who's minding the store? No one, apparently

By Walter Jowers

JULY 31, 2000:  Last week, police in Rogers, Ark., arrested 30-year-old Brahim Abdel-Vetah for putting phony bar code stickers on baby formula containers, then marching up to the cash register and buying the formula for about one-fifth of the retail price. Now, before you get all sympathetic, thinking this poor man was just struggling to feed his hungry baby, let me add this A police search of Abdel-Vetah's van turned up more than 1,000 cans of formula, sales slips from stores in Kentucky and Tennessee, and a hefty supply of bar code stickers.

Of course, we don't want to rush to judgment, but it sure looks like Abdel-Vetah was pretty well established in the bootleg formula business. "It's very sophisticated, very elaborate," Rogers police detective Mike Patten told Reuters. "We believe he's on the low rung of some organized operation."

I don't want to defend Abdel-Vetah, but I will say this: His scheme is wholly dependent on the dumbassitude of the sales clerks he encounters. Without the clerks, he's reduced to stuffing formula into his pants and toting it out to his van a can or two at a time. Simply put, the people who manage the stores that Abdel-Vetah hit did this to themselves.

In the larger tapestry of American life, a bootleg baby formula ring is not a big deal. We'll catch the bad guys, give 'em the legal equivalent of a dope-slap upside the head, and get back to our normal routine.

But checkout clerks in three states letting $20 cans of baby formula fly out the door for $3.50 apiece--that's a by-God threat to the republic. Why? Well, because that means people old enough to have a job, and smart enough to fool somebody into thinking they deserve one, are actually performing below the intellectual level of a parking meter. I am not exaggerating: There was a time when a poor boy could buy himself a dime's worth of parking time with a plastic, washer-shaped piece of toy-gun ammo called a Space Shooter Disk. But no more. The parking meters have smartened up enough to know when somebody's scamming 'em. That's more than we can say for these guilty clerks.

Some years back, when I was just out of high school, I worked a retail gig. I sold musical instruments and sound equipment at Jay's Music Center in Augusta, Ga. One of my jobs was to know that a Gibson Les Paul guitar cost the store about $500. If somebody just walked in off the street and said, "Wrap up that Les Paul," I was supposed to ring it up at $888.88. If a savvy buyer asked for my best price, I could sell the Les Paul for $700, but not a penny less.

It would've been a very bad day at the store if I had let somebody get out the door with a half-dozen Les Pauls, each with a phonied-up $200 price tag. Boss man Jake Roseman probably wouldn't have fired me, but from that day on, he would've treated me like some not-quite-right child who killed the family dog by trying to ride it. I would've quit in shame.

Clearly, the American work ethic has backslid since then. I can't say precisely when our sales clerks started going bad, but I think it was the early '80s, when medium-sized local businesses started getting replaced by "superstores." Those were the days when a remodeling boy could go out to Handy City on White Bridge Road and throw one sheet of low-quality, three-eighth-inch plywood on top of a giant stack of three-quarter-inch top-quality plywood. The clerk, not knowing the difference between a sheet of cabinet-grade plywood and a Saltine cracker, would charge the three-eighth-inch price for the whole stack. Eight hundred bucks' worth of plywood for about a hundred bucks. Helluva deal, and a real boon to Nashville's do-it-yourselfer community. Handy City didn't last long in Nashville, and I don't wonder why.

Maybe it's just me, but I say businesses shoot themselves in the foot when the proprietors never look the customers in the eye, and they put barely functional drones in charge of the cash registers. I almost feel sorry for Brahim Abdel-Vetah. The guy's just a living example of natural selection in the criminal class. He's filling a niche. Just like the flies on a dead possum, if he hadn't shown up to feed, somebody else would've.

As a general rule, I like to deal with businesses where the proprietors actually know my name, and might even lose a little sleep if I ever took my business elsewhere. When I can't do that, I go straight to the Internet, click on what I want, and wait for a truck to bring it to my house.

I know it's just a little thing, but it's what I can do to stamp out homogenized local versions of national chain outfits, chock-full of anonymous and interchangeable short-timers. And it's my little part in keeping guys like Abdel-Vetah from turning to a life of crime.


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