"It was my first time, I promise," a tearful teenage girl says, as she shifts her eyes everywhere except on the guy sitting beside her. "I swear, I've never done anything like this before," she continues hopefully. He is unmoved by her display of remorse. This is the most common response; she's just been caught attempting to steal clothing from his store. He's heard the same excuses too many times, and he is fed up.

Tired of the hassle involved in arrests and thoroughly jaded by the system of (or lack of) justice, Ron Chane, the 33-year-old owner of somå, swell and etheria (teen-targeted Jackson boutiques), decided to take a different approach to a recent epidemic of shoplifting. His new plan entails reasoning with the accused, who are mostly adolescent girls, and explaining to them how it affects his business when they steal from him. He gives them one hour to buy him a cup of coffee, explain themselves and pay up.

Winona-wannabes beware: Fake tears and empty apologies make him even more furious. According to Chane, one girl, after being caught red-handed, told him how much she appreciated him taking the time to talk to her about it. "You guys are such nice people," she told him, "I didn't realize it affected you personally like this. I'm gonna tell all my friends who shoplift here to stop." This unique response gave Chane an idea. In order to put a halt to the stealing, he'd have to find out who makes up this network of sticky-fingered teens, who he says even trade items and steal for each other to "cut the trail of evidence cold."

On Feb. 13, 2003, in an e-mail sent to his mailing list (which he frequently uses for advertising and personal communication with his young clients), Chane offered "shoplifting amnesty" to those who would come forward and pay up. The ominous message warned of "13 informants" (picture platforms shoes, baby tees and size 0 Frankie B denim flares) "scattered throughout six schools." In a world where friends and fads change more frequently than Madonna's image, this proved an effective bargaining tool. He found that loyalty means nothing to a girl who's been caught if ratting out others could save her own designer denim-clad butt.

Chane says he has a comprehensive list of 21 names, most of which overlapped on different informant lists. Although he may not recover all of the previously stolen items, he and his staff will be more alert for possible perpetrators. As for the ones who were already caught, if they are cooperating first-time offenders, he usually gives them a second chance.

"A lot of these girls come back to the store, and they still shop with us," Chane said. "I had a girl arrested last summer and part of the deal was that I expected her to come back and still shop with us because she needed to be able to face up to the act, not just be 16 years old and run from things for the rest of her life because she screwed up."

In an attempt to make shoplifting more difficult, Chane has changed the layout of somå, which just turned 2 years old this past Saturday. "We were happy just selling stuff and not having to deal with the drama," Chane said, grinning under his signature baseball cap that displays his logo on the front. When your target age group is 16- to 18-year-olds, one would suspect that drama goes with the territory. But Chane is determined to not let it stop him from getting back to business.

In his latest mass e-mail, Chane thanked his customers for their loyalty over the past two years. He even included his teenage tattlers with a special shout out to "all of the shoplifters who rolled over on their friends who trusted them to keep it a secret."

— Jennifer Moffett


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