Thursday, March 22, 2012

PLU students swipe without swiping

By Emily Biggs, Photo Editor

Five finger discounts with students are on the rise as prices and irritation increase in the University Center.

The never-ending cycle of theft is making the job difficult for Director of Dining and Culinary Services Erin McGinnis. Theft results in price increases, which prompt higher rates of theft, plaguing students and faculty as both search for alternatives in the struggle against stealing.

McGinnis said she stands firmly in the opinion that stealing is wrong, no matter the situation.

“Theft is theft whether it is here, or at a mall, or at a grocery store,” McGinnis said. “It saddens me that with our students and the caliber of our students this is a prevalent issue.”

Cora Stoneham, morning shift lead at Old Main Market, said she didn’t want to believe students stole from the university, but witnessed it first hand.

“I have physically caught a few people,” Stoneham said. “I actually approach them and ask them to pay for their products.”

For McGinnis and Stoneham it all comes down to morality. Though one student stealing two bottles of soda from the market is not going to make a significant difference in a multimillion dollar budget, McGinnis said, widespread stealing can make a significant impact in the monthly revenue of OMM and the UC Commons.

Dining and Culinary Services performs monthly cross-references between OMM’s revenue and inventory. The money that is not accounted for prompts red flags for McGinnis and other management, so even if workers do not catch thieves in the act, monthly estimates give McGinnis an idea of theft rates.

“I understand where people feel entitled and feel like it’s too expensive,” McGinnis said. “But it’s part of the package here. It [not stealing] is part of what you agree to when you come here.”

Sophomore Kristina Lapo said she disagrees. “Isn’t making me pay $10 for food that I’m not going to eat $10-worth-of stealing too?”

Lapo admitted to stealing cereal a few times from the Commons, but said she does not take it often because she does not remember to bring Tupperware.

“It is okay as long as you’re not doing it too often or too much,” Lapo said. “I don’t usually eat $10 worth of food, so when I do take a sandwich or something out like in a Tupperware I feel pretty justified doing it.”

First-year Jessica Dudley said she also forgets her Tupperware — the main reason she does not take food out of the UC.

“I have The Light [meal plan],” Dudley said, “because it’s really expensive to have the normal ones.”

McGinnis said she did not feel students are pushed into stealing food out of starvation because the “people that we catch stealing are people who are not hurting for money.”

The problem lies in the fact that students are unaware of the impact stealing creates, McGinnis said. Though it may come as a surprise to students, stealing from the UC “affects the budget overall at the university,” she added.

“Any money that is left over at the end of the year goes back to the general fund of the university,“ McGinnis said. In essence, students are taking money away from student programs and facility improvements with each stolen item.

On more than one occasion in her time at Pacific Lutheran University, McGinnis said she has witnessed suspicious behavior by students in the Old Main Market and in the Commons.

Recently, McGinnis dealt with cases regarding employees swiping students and guests into ‘all-you-care-to-eat’ dinners whom do not have meal plans.

Whether in the market or in the Commons, McGinnis instructs student employees to report suspected theft to shift leaders rather than confront the thieves themselves, allowing shift leaders to wait for an opportunity to ask the suspected students if they were stealing.

Sophomore Geena Pfeninger, two-year Dining and Culinary Services employee, has witnessed a lot of student theft in the Commons.

“We all know it is happening and it’s kind of a bummer,” Pfeninger said. “We’re losing a lot of money.”

In the last month alone, Pfeninger said three people have been caught trying to swipe in on another student’s card. It is a common practice for a student to swipe in at dinner, walk to the dining area and pass his or her card over the glass for another student to try and use, Pfeninger said.

When Stoneham catches a thief, she gathers all of the student’s important information, photocopying their I.D. and totaling up the value of the stolen products. She then hands the info over to student conduct.

“After that, we don’t know what happens,” Stoneham said.

She said she prefers to handle confrontations herself to avoid putting her student employees in a compromising situation, forcing them to confront a peer, possibly even a friend.

“I don’t let any of my students or student workers confront anybody,” Stoneham added. “I wouldn’t want the student to confront a student.”

Stealing is not isolated to student shoppers, however, and shift leads have had some difficulty with OMM employees assisting their friends with stealing from the market.

Stoneham said Dining and Culinary Services has had to review issues regarding market employees pretending to ring up friends and letting them walk away without a bill.

“I know that that has happened in the past and we have had to let those people go,” Stoneham said. “So far I haven’t had a problem with that on any of my shifts.”

First-year Sanne Metz, a barista in OMM since the beginning of the school year, said she has witnessed theft first-hand in the market.

“Most of the time we just tell the lead, but student-to-student is kinda awkward,” Metz said.

Metz also said thieves commonly take small items located toward the back of the store, such as granola bars.

“Things like that people put in their pockets so usually we don’t say anything,” Metz said. “We let the lead know.”

Surprisingly, students almost always admit to stealing, Stoneham said.

“We’ve never had someone run out of the market.”

Adding further complication, Stoneham said the variety of stolen goods — ranging from healthy granola bars and fruit juices to potato chips and soda — makes it impossible to draw conclusions on a discernible ‘stealing demographic.’

But even though there is no specific item stolen most frequently, there is a specific time when most thefts occur.

“People just know when to come in and when is the best time,” Stoneham said. Stealing primetime falls every evening when the market is at its busiest point. A crowded market makes it increasingly difficult for Stoneham and other OMM workers to monitor.

McGinnis discussed supplementing monthly inventories with daily checks for items that are small and easily put in backpacks, allowing managers to keep track.

McGinnis said Dining and Culinary Services is also looking into installing cameras and corner mirrors into the market, especially in the back areas.

Financial shortcomings are not exclusive to Old Main Market and the Commons — McGinnis said she was also concerned with potential theft in the Tahoma Bakery.

“There’s some issues that we need to work out down there,” Stoneham said. “That’s a newer thing that we’ve just started working on.”

McGinnis said theft has not been an issue at Kelley Café or the Hauge Administration Building coffee cart because all of the items are either in enclosed containers or behind the Dining and Culinary Services employee.

Stoneham said conversations to reduce theft are constantly in the works, including rearranging the market so those working at the counter can get a better sightline.

For students who resort to stealing because they cannot afford food prices at PLU, Stoneham said she tries to offer alternative resources like the Food Bank Ministry for Parkland First Baptist Church, an organization Stoneham said reaches out to support students.

“I work with students all the time,” Stoneham said. “I know it is a hardship — food is a hardship.”

“Everything comes when we need it,” Tucker said, referencing a time he said PLU stepped in during the winter snow storm and donated food from the cafeteria.

He invited PLU’s college students to come to the food bank if they are ever in need.

“We are here for college students,” Tucker said. “I know what it was like when we were in school,” Tucker said, recalling how macaroni and cheese and Top Ramen are difficult to live off of.

Somewhere in the UC today a student is contemplating stealing a ham and cheddar pre-packaged sandwich for lunch from the market since they already used their dining dollars on breakfast. As the student is well aware, buying the sandwich will cost them valuable money.

But as McGinnis said, so does stealing it.