For most business owners Facebook is all about building a fan base, interacting with customers, and making friends. But Renn Farmer had to “unfriend” three people this year when The Renn’s Nest owner used Facebook to identify shoplifters in her store.
Renn is no stranger to shoplifting. The first five years of operating her business were in a shopping mall. Her store and neighboring businesses were often victims of shoplifting. Although losses for Renn were minimal, for many merchants these losses do add up. Recent figures from the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention indicate that nationally, there are 550,000 shoplifting incidents per day, resulting in $13 billion worth of goods being stolen each year – or, $35 million in losses per day.
When Renn moved to a freestanding store in 2007 in downtown Monroe, NC, she wanted to invest in digital surveillance video technology. But the better systems were out of financial reach, especially with the expenses of a recent move.
Years passed, and in January Renn discovered a low-cost digital surveillance system for around $1,500. To keep the overall costs of the system at manageable levels, Renn’s son installed the 12-camera digital surveillance and recording system and created a central monitoring station in his mother’s office.
With a post-New Year’s resolution scratched off her list, business continued on normally for Renn and her staff until late March when Renn discovered some bracelets missing. “I quickly went back to my office and began reviewing video tapes from the previous day,” says Renn. “I spotted a young woman I recalled was wandering through the store, spending a lot of time shopping, but not buying.”
Renn reviewed the surveillance footage repeatedly until she was absolutely certain the security system captured an actual crime on video. Without a moment’s hesitation she created single images of the shoplifter from the footage and posted them on the store’s Facebook page, asking her then 3,000-plus fans if they could help the store owner identify the young blond woman, with shoulder-length hair, in the picture.
“I didn’t call the police, contact a lawyer or Facebook to see if I could legally do this,” says Renn. “I just did it, but had the presence of mind not to attach a criminal act to the identity request posted on Facebook.”
With 11 years as a business owner, an active supporter of many community outreach programs, and a fan base of thousands, Renn had lots of social media loyalty and support. Within two hours, a Facebook fan of The Renn’s Nest reposted the shoplifter images to her personal page, and a friend recognized the assailant then contacted the store.
Police were notified and the young female shoplifter was apprehended. “Unfortunately for the young woman, this incident was a parole violation, so her parole officer had no recourse but to send her back to jail,” says Renn.
The quick social media action not only resulted in returned merchandise, but a huge outpouring of support from her store’s Facebook fan base, which increased from 3,000 to about 3,5000 in the weeks after the March shoplifting incident.
Local news learned about Renn using the social media website to catch a thief, and she became a bit of a media sensation. Local and regional news outlets first reported on the story with national news companies picking up the story. “It even appeared in the New York Times’ news website,” says Renn.
In the wake of the media attention, Renn and her staff kept attracting new Facebook “likes” (at press time the store had a 4,000-plus fan base). And, with the incident behind her, the store owner spoke with local police detectives and a staff member’s husband, a lawyer, to determine if she had violated any privacy or defamation laws.
“Immediately after we caught the young woman in March, the police detectives said to me, ‘we wish more business owners would do what you did,’” says Renn. “To the police detectives’ knowledge, I wasn’t breaking any law. And, the lawyer I spoke with concurred.”
With justice served, Renn’s fan base continued to grow while attracting new customers. All was quiet for five months, until September when a shoplifter stole several hundred dollars worth of watches.
Renn repeated the video reviewing process and Facebook uploads the morning of the discovery, but was more cautious the second time. “Even though it was within my rights to post these images on Facebook, seeking to identify these people, I wanted to make absolutely sure I had line-of-sight footage showing items were in fact shoplifted,” says Renn.
That was the case in September on two counts when an old woman spent a long time in the store and stole several watches. And, 10 days later, a young man of juvenile age took some bracelets.
Given the ages of the culprits, and nature of the two incidents, Renn resolved matters by having the shoplifters and their families pay for the stolen items without filing charges with police. Still, Renn was within her rights to ban the perpetrators from ever entering the store again.
“With police as witnesses, the most recent shoplifters were brought to my store and ordered never to set foot in it again,” says Renn. “Or they’d be in violation of second-degree trespassing.”
Renn has become a bit of a retail hero in her town. The notoriety has added more than a thousand new Facebook “likes” to her fan base since March. Business is picking up to the point where new staff members have been hired, and friends tease her about Monroe having a “new sheriff in town.”
And, her name is Renn.