By Dezmond Remington and Jasmin Shirazian
Colorful and bright, full of fresh produce, natural foods and community bulletins, Wildberries looks like the perfect hippie store. A store where people of all kinds can purchase their $10 a pound granola and oat milk free from judgement. They have juice and salad bars, a cafe and even a sunroom. It’s the platonic ideal of suburban crunchiness. It doesn’t look like the kind of place where customers are regularly judged on their appearance. You wouldn’t think it’s the sort of place where employees are instructed to watch certain customers and follow them around the store. It is.
Former employee Samuel Alatorre worked at Wildberries from Oct. 2020 to March of 2021. In his time there, he said he saw many instances of management profiling customers. Often, when someone they thought looked suspicious came into the store, a manager on the PA would use a code word and an aisle number to tell employees who to keep a specific eye on.
“It’s usually someone who has a backpack, if somebody looks like they’re houseless, and also usually racial profiling—I’ve seen that as well,” Alatorre said. “It’s never been outright said ‘that person looks suspicious because they’re black,’ but OTW [one to watch] aisle four if it’s someone of color.”
One instance in particular stood out to Alatorre when a man that looked homeless tried to shop at Wildberries. He was stopped outside the store and got into an argument with a manager. When he was finally allowed inside, he was followed by several people everywhere he went. Even after paying for his items, he was still being followed until he left the store.
“That kind of incident right there, where you continue to follow him even after you’ve seen he hasn’t taken anything, is where it just kind of seems like it’s more of a power trip thing than anything else,” Alatorre said. “It’s more of a hate against the homeless community than anything else.”
Alatorre said Wildberries management often felt like they were untouchable, taking any opportunity they could to exercise their authority. Head manager Aaron Gottschalk was especially prone, whom Alatorre said he saw on multiple occasions physically confront people suspected of shoplifting.
“He in particular sees an opportunity to be that person in a position of power and he wants to exercise it by any means,” Alatorre said.
Alatorre doesn’t think that using force or profiling people to prevent shoplifting is justifiable as there are other ways to stop shoplifting, such as hiring loss-prevention security.
“I don’t think shoplifting is right,” Alatorre said. “But I also don’t think that using force in the way he does is right either.”
Not every Wildberries employee agrees with Alatorre. One current employee (who requested to remain anonymous) who has worked there since late August thinks the profiling is understandable.
“Some people know about certain customers and tell them to leave, and some customers just have this sketchy kind of energy about them and some of my managers who have been working there for 15 to 20 years seem to have a pretty good sense of who doesn’t have good intentions there and who does,” he said. “And while there is some profiling going on, I don’t think it is racial and I don’t think it’s based off of how they look.”
However, the employee did later contradict himself, saying those people with the “sketchy energy” often looked like they were homeless or even just didn’t look like they had good intentions.
“I guess [justifiable] profiling would be pointing out people who they know have already stolen or following your gut instinct based on how you see a person acting,” he said. “A lot of my managers can tell the difference between a person who’s coming in there to shop and a person who’s coming in there to steal just based off of their gut instincts, and how they’ve dealt with those people before and watch them come in and watch them leave.”
He also disagrees with other characterizations of Gottschalk as somewhat violent and vindictive. He said that Gottschalk was generally a good person, if at times a little awkward, and all-around an outstanding member of the community. Any violence is just his years of experience coming into action.
“I can sympathize with what he was probably feeling when he [pinned a 16-year-old girl to the ground several months ago],” the employee said. “I don’t think Aaron woke up that day and said, ‘hey, who am I going to target’ or ‘who am I going to pin to the floor,’ that’s not the type of guy he seems to be to me.”
According to former employee Tatum Keller, shoplifting skirmishes were fairly common in their experience there. They also saw people who looked to be homeless being followed around the store, especially people of color and younger people.
“It was probably every single day, if not every other day, someone was chased out whether they had something or not,” Keller said. “…It happened before I worked there, it happened during the time I worked there and it’s going to continue to happen still.”