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When I was in college, I wrote for the in-house magazine of a large department store. A thin wall separated our offices from the store's security force. All day long, a stream of shoplifters were brought there for questioning, giving new meaning to the words "self-service." I couldn't help overhearing their bizarre stories, punctuated by tears and hysteria.

After a while, it wasn't enough to have store detectives, walkie-talkies and two-way mirrors in the fitting rooms. Filching was getting out of hand. The white plastic safety tag was born. I have often said if savings & loans could have protected their investors' monies with the same little white plastic safety tags, we wouldn't be in the mess we are in today.A friend of mine bought and paid for a gauze dress, and when she got it home realized the salesperson had forgotten to remove the tag. It wasn't pleasant when the tag whacked her knees like an anchor with every step, but it was better than taking the garment back to the store. In the end, however, it was the public reaction to it that she couldn't live with. That white plastic tag made Hester's scarlet A look like a piece of costume jewelry. People assumed she had stolen it.

Recently, stores unveiled a new weapon in the war against stealing that is like a grenade. It's called the "Inktag," and this is how it works. If the little white capsule attached to the garment is not removed by a special tool, three vials inside break and permanent ink sprays out. Not only is the garment ruined, but the person breaking the seal runs the risk of being cut by broken glass and jagged metal.

If this doesn't work, I don't know where we go from here. Maybe we're looking at the Bubble Button - a small, round piece of plastic that if not removed professionally will inflate the dress, coat or skirt like an air mattress, making it impossible to remove from the store. Or how about the Terminator Tag? When a shoplifter tries to twist it off, a mine explodes and the garment vanishes in a mushroom cloud.

All of this could get pretty ugly before a solution is found. We could possibly see clothes protected by an innocent-looking cap that when forced open would release the smell of sweat to penetrate the garment for the rest of its life.

I'd hate to see stores resort to the ultimate in weaponry - a piece of plastic that is still on the drawing board. Without proper tools to remove it, the substance inside changes the garment into a divided skirt. That's pretty inhumane - even for a war.