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Real Deal: The Case of the False Alarm

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[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

[dropcap cap=L]angstrom Jewelers is located in Southwind Center, in a nice, upscale part of town. That’s what Troy Evans kept telling himself as he drove to the store one Monday morning at 3am to answer an alarm call — the fourth in the past six months. He’d already been warned by the responding police officer that tonight’s incident was much like the previous three. Someone had smashed the front window of the store and got inside just long enough to grab the small gold earring display off of the side counter. Troy knew that the loss was relatively small in terms of dollars, but he was very concerned about the predictable loss of employee morale, sure to show when his associates arrived to find yet another incident clean-up in the works.[/dropcap]

By all accounts, Southwind was a well maintained and secure strip center in the suburbs of a large Midwestern city. The Langstrom store was nicely designed and well cared for by Troy and his crew. As a simple security precaution, the store had been fitted with a buzz-in door system when it moved to the center from its original downtown location.

The Wednesday of the week following the last window-smashing incident, on Troy’s day off, Patti Wilcox, his assistant of 5 years (and a 12-year Langstrom associate), took an early morning call from a man asking whether the store had a particular high-end watch in stock. A quick check of the phone’s caller ID window indicated a “private” number. Typically cautious, 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 by the store to see the watch that afternoon. Weighing the balance of a potential $24,000 sale against potentially irrational security concerns, Patti reluctantly acknowledged that the store did, in fact have the watch in stock. The man said that he’d be by in the afternoon, but would not commit to a time. After hanging up the phone, Patti wondered why the man would even consider driving 30 miles when there were any number of other dealers much 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 immediate and 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 highly inappropriate for the 100-degree-plus summer heat. She reacted quickly, having one of her associates usher her customer 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 indicated 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 and demanded that the door be opened for him immediately. Patti quietly asked an associate to call the local police.

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Two police officers arrived very quickly, 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. She offered to stay there in the store while Patti took care of the men. 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 was, in his opinion, clearly a case of racial discrimination. Patti tried her best to calm him, apologizing for any misunderstanding and explaining that Langstrom serviced and employed many people with no regard to race or ethnicity. The man, however, was beyond reason. He and his friend walked off across the parking lot, and the police offered to keep a close watch on the store through the rest of the day.

The following Monday, Chuck Tanner, owner of Langstrom, received official notice of a lawsuit that had been filed charging him, Patti and his business with racial discrimination for refusing to serve the two African-American men who had come to his 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, Chuck 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 serious dose of 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.

[h3][b]The Big Questions:[/b] Was Patty justified in refusing to let the men into the store — or was she displaying a costly form of racial bias? Does Chuck, as a business owner, have a responsibility to provide mandatory diversity training for his associates? What should Chuck do about the suit? Is the cost of a quiet settlement bigger than the cost of a loud, public fight?[/h3]

Editor’s Note: Real Deal Scenarios are inspired by true stories, but are changed to sharpen the dilemmas involved. The characters should not be confused with real people.

[span class=note]This story is from the July 2009 edition of INSTORE[/span]

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[span class=alert]To be eligible for publication in INSTORE, responses must include your name, store name, and the city and state in which your store is located. [/span]

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