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Will New Wal-Mart Policy Help Catch More Drunken Drivers?

If you are a retailer, setting a policy for handling shoplifters isn’t simple. Do you call the police for every shoplifter, even a kid who pockets a box of crayons? What about a senior citizen taking some batteries? Do you treat first-timers the same as pros?

Wal-Mart has long been known for a very strict policy: call the police on anyone who takes anything. But that policy is over. Wal-Mart, which I am guessing may be the largest shoplifting target in history, is no longer prosecuting first-time shoplifter unless they are between 18 and 65 and have stolen more than $25 worth of stuff. According to today’s N.Y. Times, this change puts Wal-Mart in line with most other chains’ policies.

Why the change? Plainly, Wal-Mart had a strong preference for a zero-tolerance policy. But as it turned out, it was the economics — of their business and of policing — that produced the change.

For the store, the opportunity cost had come to severely outweigh the shoplifting cost. “J.P. Suarez, who is in charge of asset protection at Wal-Mart, said it was no longer efficient to prosecute petty shoplifters,” Michael Barbaro wrote in the Times. “‘If I have somebody being paid $12 an hour processing a $5 theft, I have just lost money,’ he said. ‘I have also lost the time to catch somebody stealing $100 or an organized group stealing $3,000.'”

But, although the article doesn’t quite say so, I am guessing it was the pressure from police departments that truly forced Wal-Mart’s hand. The Times quotes Don Zofchak, police chief in South Strabane Township, Pa., as saying that Wal-Mart “would arrest somebody for stealing a pair of socks. I felt we were spending an inordinate amount of time just dealing with Wal-Mart.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if police in many small cities and rural areas had stopped responding to Wal-Mart’s daily requests to pick up their shoplifters, or at least grumbled mightily about having to do so. Wal-Mart has taken lots of heat for lots of reasons over the years — including, for instance, the fact that many of its low-wage employees also receive public assistance, which has led some critics to say that the U.S. Government in effect subsidizes Wal-Mart’s business. I can imagine how its old shoplifting policy may have led to even more damaging criticism — that Wal-Mart has turned local police forces into Wal-Mart police forces, preventing them from doing their real jobs.

Wal-Mart is famously protective of its data, and I am sure it will not divulge much about how this new policy plays out. (The Times article, e.g., was based on internal documents leaked to the paper by, “a group backed by unions that have tried to organize Wal-Mart workers in the U.S.”) But if for someone could figure out exactly how and when each Wal-Mart store changes its shoplifting policy, and how many fewer times it calls the police, it would be really interesting to see what else the police in those places end up doing: do they make more arrests for drunken driving or domestic abuse or meth distribution?