Jackson grocery store denies teens entry
May 25, 2023
Market declines to explain policy, after kids report meeting an ‘aggressive’ guard.
JACKSON — After Avery Ward wrapped up her day at the Teton Literacy Center on May 23, her stomach hurt so she headed to Smith’s with a friend to grab some over-the-counter medicine.
Both were barred from entering.
“There was a guy in the front with a walkie-talkie who stopped me,” 15-year-old Ward said. “He said, ‘You can’t go in, you’re not old enough.’ Then he asked my friend’s age. He’s 17, and he wasn’t allowed in, either. He was trying to buy mayonnaise.”
Mayonnaise and medicine not in hand, the two went to Whole Foods and Albertsons to fulfill their needs.
It was around 5:30 p.m., almost two hours after the nearby schools let out.
Ward said that she was told by the man guarding the entrance that she was being turned away because Smith’s staff couldn’t handle the after-school “rushes.”
An hour later, when her junior friend returned, Smith’s let him in, Ward said.
When reached by phone, a manager at Smith’s said Thursday that he would not comment and asked the News&Guide to call “corporate.”
Smith’s parent company, Kroger, did not return the call by press time.
From what the News&Guide could glean from students interviewed, the policy started on Monday, May 22, and is a reaction to shoplifting. Kids under 17 are being barred from entering without a parent present. Proof of age is not being requested.
It is unclear the hours the policy is in effect for or for how long Smith’s will be turning kids away.
Jackson Hole High School sophomore Ella Weimar, 16, tried to go to Smith’s to grab a bite to eat after school around 4:30 p.m. May 24.
“There was this guy at the door and he almost looked like a bouncer,” Weimar recalled. “I walked by him, and he turned around and stopped me and said, ‘You can’t come in.’”
She wanted to know the reason.
“I was asking why and he came up to me as if he was going to forcefully remove me and put his hands on me,” she said. “I walked out. I didn’t want to be touched.”
Weimar called the interaction “very, very aggressive.”
Before walking out, Weimar said the man told her that there had been “too much theft.”
According to police, 15 minutes after Weimar departed, a 15-year-old and a 39-year-old woman believed to be the boy’s mother were cited for trespassing at the store. Further details on the interaction were not known.
When the News&Guide went to Smith’s at 3:15 p.m. Thursday to confirm whether students were being turned away, a Smith’s employee was standing guard at the entrance in a high-visibility vest with a walkie-talkie.
When the News&Guide asked why the man was standing there, he declined to answer questions and threatened this reporter with trespassing.
A group of Jackson Hole High School students interviewed on the scene that afternoon around 4 p.m. confirmed they had just been barred from entering.
“He asked me what I thought I was doing, and I said, ‘Going to shop,’ and he said, ‘You guys aren’t allowed without a parent,’” said Isaac Moser, 15, a freshman at the high school.
“He chased me,” another high schooler on crutches chimed in. “He said, ‘Just leave and never come back.’”
At 4:17 p.m., a Smith’s employee called the police to report a group of five to seven kids, stating that he wanted the kids to leave the property. Whether this was the same group that the News&Guide spoke with is not clear from the police notes, as police arrived and resolved the situation without running names or citing anybody for trespassing.
The call notes said that dispatch heard the man yelling at the kids over the phone.
“It’s definitely surprising,” Weimar said. “Usually when I go [to Smith’s] I’ve had a lot of friendly interactions, so it’s a switch-up.”
Weimar, as well as the group of high school students interviewed at the store, said their understanding was that the policy is in response to shoplifting.
Lt. Russ Ruschill of the Jackson Police Department said that since January the police have received just one report of shoplifting at Smith’s. It occurred Jan. 23 at 3:17 p.m. Because it involved a juvenile, Ruschill couldn’t say whether formal charges were filed.
Shoplifting also can be categorized as “theft.” Still, Ruschill said that a search for theft reports at Smith’s since January yielded no results.
Ruschill did say that Police Chief Michelle Weber received an email May 23 from a Smith’s patron complaining of bicycle traffic in the Smith’s parking lot and on adjacent pathways. The letter referred to “kid-created chaos in the parking lot.”
The woman did not return a request to speak with the News&Guide by press time. Ruschill would not release the woman’s name, despite the public correspondence.
An Albertsons manager declined to be interviewed but stated that he hadn’t heard about the new policy and was skeptical that Smith’s was turning kids away.
The group of freshmen interviewed Thursday said the policy appeared to be unevenly enforced.
“I saw them let some kids in, but they didn’t let other kids in,” one freshman said. “They let a couple girls in.”
The students stated that the day before, May 24, the policy wasn’t as harsh, and “it was only a few kids that weren’t allowed in.”
Casper attorney Frank Chapman weighed in on the legality of the policy. He said businesses in Wyoming can refuse to serve anyone for any reason.
“But when they do, then those persons who were refused service may have a cause of action that depends on why they were refused service,” Chapman said.
For example, Chapman said that if the store is letting children of a certain race or gender in, but not another race or gender, then there might be grounds for a legal claim.
“But if they’re keeping out everybody under the age of 17, probably not,” Chapman said.
“Smith’s won’t talk about it because they’re afraid to. There’s not much that they can say that makes sense if they’re leaving out kids A, B and C because kids X, Y and Z shoplifted the week before,” Chapman said. “That whole store is under video surveillance, so they know exactly who is shoplifting and what they’re shoplifting.”
Chapman said he’s seen retail stores in Casper post signs banning kids under 12 from entering without parents. Like Smith’s, the stores are near schools and experience the after-school crush.
“I can see [Smith’s] saying that there are certain hours of the day when we can’t let in people who are under 17 or unaccompanied by an adult for an hour or two,” Chapman said. “I think it’s a real mixed bag to just be doing it sort of inadvertently and whenever they think it suits them.
“The fact that Smith’s will not speak about the policy publicly is indicative that they know they’ve got a problem with the policy, if they cannot or will not describe it and take ownership of it,” Chapman said. “Parents should not let their children be treated like this just because they’re kids.”
This story was published on May 31, 2023.