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The San Francisco boutique Anomie looks like any other cool-girl fashion destination you’d find in Brooklyn, Portland, or Austin.
The chic, sun-drenched shop is light and airy. It has racks of neutral-colored linen clothes by indie designers like Rachel Antonoff and Miranda Bennett, bags from Clare Vivier, and tables set with delicate jewelry, home goods, and beauty products from trendy millennial brands like Herbivore.
There’s one hint, though, to tip shoppers off that there’s something going on inside, something more than what meets the eye. A small, cute sign that sits on the floor and faces the outside window reads: “Plz don’t steal from us because it’s a terrible thing to do... also, you’re on camera —> SMILE!”
The sign is small and inconspicuous and its message is vague, so most shoppers probably won’t realize that inside Anomie there’s an ongoing sting operation of sorts, run by the boutique’s founder and owner, Chelsea Moylan. A Northern California native, Moylan opened her storefront almost two years ago, and in addition to managing a business that fundamentally supports independent or emerging designers — the store’s tagline is “We Sell Nice Things” — Moylan simultaneously works as self-employed detective, spending her nights and weekends hunting down shoplifters.
On a recent summer afternoon at the boutique, Moylan relates an ongoing joke about receiving a sponsorship from Swiffer. “The other day I chased a guy who stole my bag down the street with one,” she explains with a grin.
Moylan has caught nearly a dozen shoplifters in her store. While she gets a little help from her security camera and social media, she’s certainly no ordinary boutique owner; Moylan is a trained criminologist, with a master’s degree in criminology from the University of Pennsylvania. She spent some time volunteering at prisons before she realized “there was probably no money in the field, or in social work,” and looked for opportunities elsewhere.
A self-professed shopaholic, Moylan was a former YouTube vlogger, where she made videos that showed off clothing she bought. She started a blog using affiliate links before deciding to open her own site. She called the site Anomie, a criminology theory of justice she learned about in school that roughly describes an unstable condition on goals and means — a metaphor for how Moylan felt at the time, freshly graduated from Penn but unable to land fashion jobs at Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie, whose headquarters were nearby.
After starting the Anomie site in January 2014, she opened the storefront a year and a half later in cool San Francisco residential neighborhood Cow Hollow. Moylan had an initial hunch that there was something iffy about the neighborhood: Even though the area had a reputation for being affluent, family-oriented, and even artistically inclined, Anomie’s “storefront cactus garden disappeared several times during the first few weeks it was open.” Eventually, Moylan, and two other employees that keep track of the boutique’s sparse inventory began to notice items were going missing. Some were small, like dainty jewelry, while others, like independent designer clothing, had much higher price tags, and were a serious dent in the pocket of a small business owner.
“There’s homicides happening,” says Moylan. “I know that if I’d contact them they’d say, ‘We’ll come out and collect information about that stuff tomorrow.’ Well, you know what, I can solve it by tomorrow!”
Moylan briefly looked into installing electric tags onto the clothing and products, but found such a system was costly, more than the losses she was taking. There was also the option to hire a big security guard to stand at the front of the store, but she says she was concerned that would affect Anomie’s small, intimate environment.
Instead, Moylan decided to take matters into her own hands and catch the perps on her own. She invested in a small camera from Nest with its own wifi system and now combs through hours of footage any time something from Anomie goes missing. While one might assume quite the opposite, Moylan says shoplifters are almost always the ones who are buying things from the store in the first place. In most incidents, she was able to spot the perpetrators on the security footage and then contact them directly, since the boutique’s payment system tracks names and email addresses. Moylan describes many shoplifters as “bored housewives” or innocent-looking shoppers who chat a lot. She recalls recently catching the wife of a local wealthy businessman, who Moylan watched on the security camera moving something around before stuffing it into her purse.
“The people I’ve dealt with don’t seem like they are people who need the stolen dress or ceramic vase. They spend $400 but steal something that is $70, and they’ve paid with [an American Express] Black card,” she says. “A lot of them do it for the thrill, which is honestly hard because it’s tough to prepare yourself for that type of person.”
During her time in school for criminology Moylan studied crime prevention, and she admits there’s really no way to identify exactly who is going to be that person who steals. Moylan has been able to pinpoint some telling behaviors, but they don’t follow common assumptions about how thieves behave in stores or racial stereotypes. One is when a shopper is overtly charming or chatty.
“There’s no typical thief in this sense, but I’ve actually picked up on a lot of friendly behavior. It’s usually the girl wearing a Cartier bracelet and complimenting you, and then you turn your back and they are putting something into their purse,” she says. “I think most people expect that someone who is looking at you constantly or coming in with a big bag is going to be the thief, but for us, it’s been the nice person who is like, ‘Oh my god, I love these earrings! Is this your store, I love it!’ I had to train my employees because they thought it meant that if someone was nice, she was cool and they could run to the back to grab something real quick.”
Anomie gets shoplifters who hide things in purses, as well as those who swipe items in the dressing room. With the information of shoplifters on file, Moylan has been pretty successful getting merchandise back just by reaching out to people privately — something she says she does when she is “4,000 percent sure of the person.” She’ll usually email or call them letting them know she’s spotted them on her security footage, and they have till 7 p.m. to return the item or send her money. The tactic has worked for the most part, minus some uncomfortable situations.
“We had one girl who tried something on in the dressing room, and it disappeared. She bought something else, so I contacted her, but she was really manipulative about it, insisting that she was a good person and that it is really hard to be accused of such a thing,” Moylan recalls. “She wouldn’t admit it and kept saying I should come to her apartment, even though I said ‘That doesn’t prove anything!’ But then she kept calling. It was the most interesting interaction, where she wasn’t leaving us alone! She eventually came here crying and finally paid for it, insisting it wasn’t an admission of her guilt.”
In rare occasions where a shoplifter doesn’t buy something, Moylan will resort to social media, posting photos and images from her security camera onto Anomie’s Facebook and Instagram. This works pretty well, too; the power of social media is that people are often recognized, especially the locals. In a recent scenario, a shoplifter Moylan had on camera putting multiple items in her purse showed up to the store in a disguise and returned the items, complete with an apology letter.
Shoplifting is just one ugly byproduct that comes with running a small business. Moylan says most store owners won’t go through half the trouble she does and usually write off stolen items as a loss. For Moylan, though, it matters.
“I don’t think people talk about what they do about shoplifters because they don’t want to sound crazy or petty, and it’s the shitty side of owning a business, but every single dollar that goes into this store is coming out of my pocket,” she says. “So someone stealing $100 is stealing a day of my life because that’s $100 I could have paid an employee to be here and I could have been somewhere else.”
“It’s like, people might be kleptos, but come on! Don’t bring it to a small business!” she goes on. “It’s a matter of principle more than it is about the cold hard cash.”
There’s also another factor here of course: Once a crime junkie, always a crime junkie. Anomie just so happens to be owned by a person whose boyfriend recently bought her a subscription to Hunt A Killer, a monthly membership service to solve mysteries (basically a Birchbox for crime nuts). Moylan admits that while most boutique owners will call her little sting operation a waste of time — she concedes she’s spent six hours chasing someone who jacked a $45 ring — proving a point morally also ranks in evenly with the novelty of it all.
“You probably don’t want to hunt for a shoplifter if you have plans on the weekend,” she says. “But if I’m going home on a Friday night, I’m generally turning on Investigation Discovery. So I can just create my own episode by watching my store’s footage.”