HONOLULU — It happens daily in supermarket and convenience stores nationwide — digging into a bag of chips while waiting in line, sampling a couple of grapes in the produce section, opening a bottle of milk to appease a crying child.
The highly-publicized story of a pregnant Honolulu mom who was arrested last week with her husband after she ate a sandwich in a Safeway store and forgot to pay, leading to the couple's 2-year-old daughter being taken away by Child Welfare Services, has sparked a national debate on the issue.
It also raised the question: Is it OK to consume food and beverages in the store before paying?
The woman in Hawaii who ate the sandwich has no problem with it.
"I didn't know it was such a taboo thing," said Nicole Leszczynski who was charged with fourth-degree theft, a petty misdemeanor, along with her husband, Marcin. The charges have since been dropped by Safeway. "Where I grew up in a small town it's not seen as stealing for sure."
Others are not so sure.
The story generated a robust debate on Facebook and Yahoo in comments following stories on the theft. Some argued that it's wrong to eat what you haven't paid for, and that police did the proper thing in arresting them. Others said eating while shopping has become a perfectly acceptable practice. Many denounced the arrest as a heavy-handed response.
At the Safeway where the Leszczynskis were arrested, Linda Mercado and her friend Christine Lutley didn't get too far from the exit Wednesday before they began digging into their food purchases. Mercado polished off a package of sushi as she discussed her views on the issue.
"Pay before you eat," the 66-year-old Mercado said. "It's bad manners."
However, Mercado acknowledged drinking beverages in the past while waiting in line.
"I don't walk around the store drinking it," she explained. "By the time I'm done shopping I'm thirsty."
Shoppers Gerard and Ruth Viggayan said they consider eating before paying to be stealing.
"If you want to eat it, you have to purchase it," the 34-year-old Gerard said. "It's not like Costco where you get free samples."
His wife was craving a bag of potato chips, but she said she would wait until they got to the car to open it. "If it looks good, we pay for it," Ruth, 33, said, "and then eat."
Wahiawa resident Jadene Espinueva, 34, has consumed cookies, grapes and bottled water before paying. "Just as long as you're going to pay for it and you've got the money, why not?" she said. "If I'm hungry or thirsty, yeah, I'm guilty of it. I don't see what's the big deal."
Eating before checking out has clearly become part of supermarket culture. From supermarkets to Costco handing out food samples in aisles, shoppers associate stores with being an acceptable place to munch, said Dana Alden, a marketing professor at the University of Hawaii's business school and an expert in consumer psychology and branding.
Alden said it wouldn't be prudent customer relations for stores to crack down. He likened the acceptance of eating before paying to dropping a jar of peanut butter, but still not being forced to pay for it.
Consumer behavior expert Debbie MacInnis, a marketing professor at the University of Southern California, said a trip to the grocery store is a familiar routine, and can be seen as a place where it's acceptable to eat.
"That creates a certain sense of it's OK for me to do that because I'm hungry and I have every intention of paying for it," she said. "From a psychology standpoint, it's mine even though the formal transaction hasn't transpired."
As for the 28-year-old Leszczynski, the former Air Force staff sergeant who is 30 weeks pregnant was feeling faint and famished after a long walk to the Safeway near downtown Honolulu and decided to eat a chicken salad sandwich while shopping and saved the wrapper to have it scanned at the register. But she and her husband forgot to pay for the sandwiches as they checked out with about $50 worth of groceries.
When confronted by security, they offered to pay, but Honolulu police were called and the couple were arrested and booked. Their daughter Zofia was taken away. Leszczynski said she was embarrassed and horrified.
They posted $50 bail each and were reunited with their daughter after an 18-hour separation.
Honolulu police said it was routine procedure to call Child Welfare Services if a child is present when both parents are arrested.
Safeway called Leszczynski on Tuesday and apologized for what she went through. The company also informed police the same day that it wouldn't press charges.
Safeway said management followed routine shoplifting procedure by contacting police, but the company regrets not foreseeing that doing so would cause a child to be separated from her parents.
Safeway said it has no policy that prohibits consumption of merchandise in the stores, "but customers are expected to be able to identify and pay for the consumed merchandise before leaving."
Foodland Super Market Ltd., Hawaii's largest locally owned grocer, prefers customers pay for items before consuming them to avoid confusion or appearance of theft, spokeswoman Sheryl Toda said.
"However, we do understand that emergencies occur where a child or individual needs to consume a product immediately," she said. "In those instances, we expect that wrappers or containers will be saved and presented to the cashier for payment before the customer leaves the store."