Whole Foods Versus Shoplifters: The Conundrum

THE ACCIDENTAL THIEF: A local mom is banned from Whole Foods for life for accidentally walking out with an item she didn’t buy.

Illustration: Matt Vincent

On April 8th, Lisa Portes had just purchased $40 worth of groceries at the Whole Foods Market in Lincoln Park and was treating her children to pudding in the café when she realized she needed one more item. She also realized she was late to pick up her husband.

So Portes, 43, the head of directing at DePaul University’s Theatre School, grabbed a $13 bottle of dinosaur-shaped chewa­ble vitamins and began texting her husband that she was running late. Then her four-year-old announced he had to go to the bathroom. Juggling a cell phone, a wallet, keys, three coats, two kids, and a sustainable cloth bag filled with groceries, Portes managed a successful bathroom visit.

Lisa Portes
Portes Photo: Megan Dodge

Moments later in the parking lot, a security guard stopped the family and asked them to come back inside. In the confusion, Portes had put the vitamins in her bag and walked out without buying them. Mortified, she explained the situation and offered to pay. Instead, the guard took her to a manager’s office, where he snapped her photo, told her to sign a document, and banned her from Whole Foods for life. Her protests—I just bought $40 worth of groceries! I’m in here every week!—fell on deaf ears. Enraged, she grabbed her kids and left.

Our natural instinct is to judge Portes guilty of an honest mistake and Whole Foods guilty of grossly overreacting. But from the store’s perspective, it’s hard to distinguish the Lisa Porteses from the real criminals: Those who get caught with items they didn’t pay for always have a story about how this is all just One Big Mistake. “A lot of shoplifters use children as decoys,” says Rachel Shteir, who is writing a book about shoplifting. (Shteir, coincidentally, is one of Portes’s colleagues at DePaul.) “And a lot of them buy some goods but steal others.” In other words, Portes looked exactly like a shoplifter. The ban, Shteir says, was obviously meant to shame Portes, but a zero-tolerance policy also prevents habitual shoplifters—say, “boosters” who turn around and sell stolen goods online—from talking their way out of trouble. In this context, one can understand why Whole Foods doesn’t try to figure out which people did it intentionally. A rigid protocol lessens the frequency of customer lawsuits regarding false arrests, racial profiling, and injuries during apprehension.

But the Whole Foods logic didn’t appease Portes. The incident continued to rankle her. She wrote a letter to the company expressing her displeasure and received a detailed e-mail response from Rich Howley, the store’s team leader, who explained the policy and backed the security guard’s actions. In the end, Howley said he believed Portes and would reinstate her. (Though not before getting in a shot of his own: “Would you want me in your home if you found me leaving your home with property of yours?”) Kate Klotz, a Whole Foods spokeswoman, says that the company considers each incident separately and cannot comment further on Portes.

The last time Portes drove up Kingsbury Street, her four-year-old blurted out what the whole family was thinking: “That’s the Whole Foods that kicked your butt right out of there.” Everyone laughed. Then, three weeks after Howley’s response, Portes received a letter from a collection company demanding $250 on behalf of Whole Foods, citing an Illinois law that permits merchants to recover monetary damages from shoplifters. Klotz says the letter was sent in error, and that Whole Foods does not expect Portes to pay the $250—but Portes still has not forgiven the company for the whole ordeal. “Protocol or no protocol, Whole Foods projects an environment of community and friendliness, and it’s not real,” she says. “They didn’t leave the slightest margin for human error. I’m just a frazzled mom.” A frazzled mom who, despite her reinstatement, will never shop at Whole Foods again.



4 years ago
Posted by MJK60646

I'm sorry but I agree with Whole Foods. People have got to start paying attention to what they're doing and stop trying to juggle 12 tasks at once. This sense of entitlement in our society has got to stop. I don't care who you are or what you were attempting to do. You stole something from a store and get defensive when they call you on it? Pathetic!

4 years ago
Posted by scribetoo

Having been a retail manager, I have a hard time with the rigidity of this "policy." A store like Whole Foods is a community staple -- they have regulars and any amount of time working in that store, you start to recognize your regulars. Store leadership should be given the opportunity to make decisions in situations like this, not just fall back on the "policy" like some sort of automaton. Honestly, I think a rigid and inflexible policy of ANY kind, in retail -- especially in an economy such as ours -- is short-sighted and ill-advised. I can't help but side with the mom on this one. Real thieves give signs they are trying to deceive, especially when confronted. People should be doing their jobs, not just reading a manual and pointing to it whenever confronted with making a decision.

4 years ago
Posted by equality4all

I think this article is pretty well balanced. However, I'm sure the manager had a lot of good things to say to this person, considering he let her back. Too bad journalists pick one line and put it completely out of context.

on another note, I love the way this Portes lady puts herself as the victim. SHE STOLE SOMETHING. she is the one that was wrong.

What a joke.

Me thinks thou dost protest too much.

I think she probably felt that she had spent enough and tried to stick it to whole foods. unfortunately for her, she got caught. If I were that manager I would keep a closer eye on her next time she's in.

4 years ago
Posted by Absyrd

She's a thief and a liar. I'd ban her from my store for both those things. There's no way you 'accidentally' put an unpaid item in your purse and do not think about it. Not only would I not apologize, but I would do what other stores do - post her picture on the store window as 'Shoplifter of the Week'.
Maybe she should stop shoveling sugar down her kids' throats and take a personal productivity class. Here is a list of the items that she was 'juggling', that frazzled her so: a cell phone, a wallet, keys, three coats, two kids, and a sustainable cloth bag filled with groceries.
I think women in Africa carry all of those things on top of their heads every day. Get a life; you're lucky Whole Foods didn't call the cops on you. To make this a public situation just shows how elitist you really are.

4 years ago
Posted by ja1234

I feel for both sides on this one. I am a frazzled working mom with two young kids, and I can totally picture this bathroom scenario happening to me. In fact, it HAS happened to me - but with one difference. I actually take the time to put un-purchased items aside from purchased ones - either on a nearby counter, with a store clerk - anywhere but IN my bag. And I always keep my receipt in my pocket or somewhere in the bag so that, if challenged, I can prove what I've paid for. I know I look like a walking wreck! But I am an honest one. It's part of being a mom. Those with children totally understand how crazy your brain feels a lot of the time. It's not easy.

4 years ago
Posted by 121212

Are you who posted the earlier comments KIDDING me? Put her photo on the wall and call her shoplifter of the WEEK?! You obviously don't have children, but do have a giant chip on your shoulder. Give the lady a break. It's embarrassing enough to make a mistake like that, but even more so to be shamed by authorities. Everyone who has ever misplaced their keys should be able to identify. Let he who is not guilty of absent-minded misplacement throw the first stone. C'mon now.

I understand the policy, but they have to be nice about it and not jerks, because she clearly was a loyal customer.

4 years ago
Posted by Turbo60640

Does Portes also engage in absent minded "juggling" while driving or completing other adult-oriented tasks? Retailers are not in the business of deciding who is or isn't a "real" shoplifter. This woman (sorry, "frazzled mom") took merchandise out of the store without paying for it.

She needs to deal with the consequences and stop running her entitled mouth.

4 years ago
Posted by cammy

Using the "frazzled mom" bit unfortunately doesn't cut it. When she hits a cyclist on the street because her kids are screaming in the car, she should be exonerated? Why do women with kids think they are the only ones who are "frazzled". Get off your texting and use some control with your children. We're all frazzled in some way honey. I'd not trust the way you do your job, now that I think about it. It may have well been an accident, but then again, it may not have. Even people with lots of money steal.

4 years ago
Posted by MaroonMind

You know, frazzled or not, she probably drives the same way. Would her excuse be the same if she ran a red light or stop sign and hurt/killed someone? Sorry, not buying it.

4 years ago
Posted by MaroonMind

Bingo, Cammy.

4 years ago
Posted by Sashi

What I want to know, is how she managed to buy groceries at Whole Foods for only $40.00?

4 years ago
Posted by Patti B

While I don't think Portes intended to walk out without paying, I'm not buying all the excuses (keys, cell phone, jackets, kids and the PC grocery bag). DePaul might wonder how she juggles her job and her frazzeled family life. Are they missing any paper clips? From the photo, she is enjoying the attention.

4 years ago
Posted by BobSF

How "mortified" can she have been to have raised such an "enraged" and public fight?

An adult would realize what she had done and waited a few months, THEN wrote begging to be allowed back in to pay for their overpriced merchandise.

4 years ago
Posted by MJK60646

@121212 Misplacing keys and stealing are not even almost the same thing. Your argument is demonstrably all over the place and prior comments are justified. Get over your own persecution. I have NEVER taken something from a store without paying for it regardless of how "frazzled" I was or how many children I had in tow.

"It's embarrassing enough to make a mistake like that, but even more so to be shamed by authorities."

Ummm ... I'm sure it wasn't the authorities who escalated this "story" to the press. Truly how "embarrassed" can she be?

Children are certainly another responsibility to manage but they are never a reason not to do the right thing. In fact, what is she teaching her children by not owning her mistake and accepting the consequences?

4 years ago
Posted by MCH79

I know that people are "frazzled" at times...especially with a bunch of kids. But, policies are there for a reason. You cannot always look at each situation individually! If they started doing that, they would get in trouble for discrimination, racism, blah blah blah. AND...does anyone else think it's funny that her colleague just so happens to be writing a book on the topic?!? Hmmm...I'm not sayin, I'm just sayin!

4 years ago
Posted by lucky1

Consider yourself lucky as Whole Foods is a fraud. $13 for chewable vitamins? Take the same shopping list to almost any other store and it will cost less than $40.

4 years ago
Posted by Chicagoing

So she bought 40$ worth of groceries at whole foods... that means like 2-3 items tops not that much to juggle... she was stealing for the thrill..

4 years ago
Posted by willifred

"Juggling a cell phone, a wallet, keys, three coats, two kids, and a sustainable cloth bag filled with groceries ... "

Hey, lady, ever heard of a cart?

4 years ago
Posted by olivianj

I can understand being "frazzled," I guess, and walking into the bathroom with an unpurchased product -- but why would you ever put that product in your purse? There has to be some bell that goes off in your head when you start putting products into your own bag.

My guess is that she didn't feel like standing in line again and probably rationalized it by thinking that she gives Whole Foods enough money to let them donate some vitamins to her. You know, because she's a "frazzled" mom. That excuse covers everything these days, it seems.

4 years ago
Posted by Absyrd

If she was at work when Chicago Magazine took this picture, then she's stealing again - company time! Jeesh Portes, when does the thievery end with you?!

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