Toy store goes members-only to prevent thefts

NOVATO, Calif.

The Dollhouses, Trains and More store has been successful enough to stay in business for more than 15 years, but recently things were not looking so good. So the owner took a page out of Costco's playbook and is now a members-only store.

Dollhouses, Trains and More in Novato is what dreams made up of. But this past July, store owner Linda Becker was ready to close her popular store after 15 years in business. It wasn't because of the economy or the lack of customers, it was theft.

"There had been so much merchandise stolen that month and the month before I said, 'That's it, what am I in business for? To give merchandise away? I can't afford it; I work seven days a week,'" Becker said.

And there was not much she could do about it.

"If they walk out the door, I can run after them and stop them that way and the police said all they have to do is push my arm aside and say no," Becker said.

So Becker had the idea to turn the store into a membership-only shopping club.

Big box stores like Costco and Sam's Cub have successfully built their businesses on a membership-only business model. But it is unusual for a mom and pop store to do the same. The cost to run a membership program can be costly and time consuming. And, some shop owners just want to get people into the store.

Becker decided her members would not need to pay a fee to join; instead customers fill out a membership card, provide a driver's license and then are issued a membership card.

Becker says she does not store any of her customers' personal information. California law allows a business to swipe a driver's license to verify a customer's ID, but not store the information.

"It's not to do anything other than to do anything other than to know who is in the store shopping," Becker said.

Pam Dixon of the World Privacy Forum says consumers should always be concerned about what happens to their personal information.

"No. 1, does the store have a privacy policy anywhere that tells me what's going on behind the scenes and No. 2, is this information being sold anywhere without my knowledge or consent," Dixon said.

Becker estimates that only about 2 percent of customers have not signed up over concerns of privacy..

Tamara Mendoza has been shopping at the store for years.

"At first I was kind of confused, but I understand it is to curb theft, so you have to do whatever you have to do," Mendoza said.

It's just been a few months but Becker has seen a dramatic decrease in theft. And, she's getting calls from all over the country from other toy stores for advice.

That thin magnetic stripe on the back of your license has all the information that's on the front -- name, height, weight, eye color and license number. This has been around for more than a decade and can be used by police, retailers and banks to easily access your data.

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