Sometimes Retail Sucks


Last Saturday morning two masked men ran into our Veemarkt shop, put a gun to my head, waved a knife in my face, and moments later ran off with a few hundred euro in cash. I was alone since Wesley had just ridden a bakfiets full of trash off to the recycling center down the road. There wasn’t much I could do aside from stand still and subtly try to stay away from the knife the punk repeatedly threatened to slash me with without provoking him to actually do so. Several times he screamed at me “Where’s the cash?! Where’s the register?!” but it was obvious that his pistol wielding buddy had already cased the joint. He ran right upstairs to the correct drawer in the correct desk before I said a word.

It took me a moment to even realize what was going on. Is this a joke? Is a guy in a ski mask really pointing a pistol at my forehead? After a few seconds the neurons connected. Yes, that gun looks real enough. The big kitchen knife is certainly real. No I don’t have any prankster buddies with Moroccan-Amsterdam accents. And they’re yelling at me that it’s a robbery.

I’ve never been threatened so directly and dangerously before but I can easily imagine that different people could react in many ways. One might just be paralyzed from the fear. Or spurred into risky hero-action by the rush of adrenaline. I managed to keep it together. I just stood there quietly and tried to catalog as many characteristics of the two men as I could remember. I have a very good visual memory. I don’t mean to imply it’s easy under such stressful circumstances but I managed to get the following down:

Robber 1

  • About 180-185cm
  • Notably thin in both build and facial structure
  • Northern African descent, probably Moroccan
  • Wore a baseball type cap in dark blue or grey with some red on the bill. BIll was pulled down to obscure his face but I could still see him from the nose downward.
  • Wore a dark grey, or faded black sweatshirt with the hood pulled tightly over the cap.
  • Carried a large, general purpose kitchen knife. Knife was of a fairly inexpensive make with a thin blade and wooden handle. The end of the blade was not forged into the handle grip. The knife had clearly been sharpened many times such as in a restaurant.
  • He was standing too closely for me to see his trousers or shoes well.
  • Robber 2

  • About 180-185cm, but this is less sure than above since he only stood next to me for a few seconds before running upstairs.
  • Athletic build, broader shoulders than Robber 1. Not fat but sturdier.
  • Notably blocky head
  • Northern African descent, probably Moroccan
  • Wore a black, knitted ski mask with only his eyes and mouth exposed.
  • Wore a dark sweatshirt with the hood pulled over the ski mask.
  • Carried a small, grey pistol that was medium grey and very matte finish. The pistol had an angular design and a small cylindrical barrel extending from the “body”. The hole in the barrel was clearly of bullet size.
  • Robber 2 was clearly the “boss” of the two. He gave the orders and knew where the cash was.
  • Since customers don’t normally go upstairs Tom immediately recalled a suspicious incident a month or two ago: A young guy came in asking for change. Despite firmly telling him to stay downstairs he followed the employee upstairs, apparently to see where the cash is kept. When you run a couple retail shops all sorts of strange things happen but this one caught Tom’s attention for several reasons:

  • The Veemarkt is a light industrial terrain where we’re just about the only retailer so there’s really no reason to need change to change a bill there. Even the parking ticket machines are card only.
  • The way he insisted upon following Wesley upstairs and watched was suspicious.
  • His story just didn’t add up (in retrospect of course).
  • After last week’s robbery our descriptions of this character matched well, obviously given the limitations of what one can identify on a man wearing a woolen ski mask, a heavy sweatshirt with the hood over his head and baggy jeans.

    When the men ran out (pistol guy falling and bumping down the stairs on his ass) I scrambled to find a phone and dial 1-1-2 as quickly as possible. I was running as soon as their backs were turned. Of course I later realized that one of the phones was actually sitting on the workbench within arm’s reach of where I’d been cornered. Oops, a ten second delay in calling the police. Phone in hand I ran outside hoping to see which direction they went. They were no longer visible but that in itself is an answer since there’s only one direction one could run and be out of sight within about 15 seconds. I assume they had a vehicle waiting around the corner and my vehicle prejudice says it was probably a scooter, but I didn’t actually hear or see anything to confirm that.

    Reaching the police through the emergency line was frustrating though in retrospect it probably took less than a minute. The dispatcher couldn’t seem to understand why I wanted the police to come to the Veemarkt while another address (the billing address for the phone) was shown on her screen. But once they had the right address the police were there within a couple minutes. A better part of the day was then spent talking to the police, waiting for the forensics team to collect fingerprints and other samples, and then viewing a suspect through a one-way mirror. It was all pretty much like we see in movies and on TV except the criminals weren’t so polished and there was no dramatic music to make it more exciting.

    This isn’t Workcycles’ first criminal incident this year. In fact it’s at least our third in just the last few months and it’s getting rather annoying to say the least:

    A couple months ago and actually the last time I spent a Saturday at our Veemarkt shop a rather normal looking, well-dressed woman talked to an employee about Cargobikes, rode off on a test ride and never came back. Upon inspection we discovered that the wallet she’d left behind was filled with nothing but fake cards and small change.

    We’ve also recently had two incidents at the Lijnbaansgracht shop that we can only guess were botched or failed robbery attempts. One unfortunately resulted in a fight between an employee and one of the perps, apparently instigated as a diversion.

    So it’s clearly time for some changes to make it safer for everybody except the criminals. In the grand scheme the material losses are annoying but minimal. The risk of an employee, customer, family member (my kids are often in the shops) or bystander getting hurt has to be minimized.

    Change number one: Eliminate cash from Workcycles’ stores.
    In the Netherlands this is not so difficult. The locals already pay for most things with debit cards instead of cash. Tourists almost always have credit cards. The only significant challenge is the rentals, for which we’ve always taken a cash deposit. That’s always been an annoyance but neither the debit card nor the Dutch credit card system allow reserving deposits or making refunds. We now have an alternative credit card system that we can employ for deposits but many Dutch simply don’t have credit cards. Whatever. We’ll figure it out and then make sure that even semi-literate cretins can see that there’s no cash to take here. It’ll make our bookkeeping a good deal simpler too.

    Change number two: Surveillance cameras in our shops.
    I’ve always been opposed to such things but it’s both a good deterrent and would have helped the police in each of the cases above. Of course I mean REAL cameras and recording systems, not the ubiquitous fake cameras with red LED light one buys for a few euro on the Internet. Then we’ll somehow make it very clear that there are cameras. Yuck, but we need it.

    Change number three: Silent alarms.
    After last Saturday’s robbery I thought through the incident about 75,000 times finally coming to the conclusion that, under the circumstances, I couldn’t have done anything much differently or significantly better. I wish I could have remembered even more, noted the perp’s shoes for example but that doesn’t make much difference anyway. What I really missed was a way to silently alert the police that I was in danger, and in most of the incidents we’ve had the criminals were around longer than it took the police to reach us. I tinkered unsuccessfully with my iPhone to find a way to make an emergency call from my back pocket. That would be handy but does such an app exist? Even if it does we can’t count on every employee always having a certain type of mobile phone in their pocket. No, much better would be “panic buttons” discretely located in various places. Considering that one push of the button brings the police some care would have to be taken to ensure that they don’t get touched accidentally.

    Meanwhile the police are apparently working on the case and have two potential suspects. I’ve complained about the Amsterdam police in these pages before but it’s clear that they do take the matter very seriously when weapons are involved. I’m OK and relieved not only of several hundred euro, but also that nobody was hurt.

    25 Responses to “Sometimes Retail Sucks”

    1. Todd Edelman Says:

      It’s good that the police seem to be on top of things, but the location display goof seems to be something that needs to get corrected across the system. Did the police take note of the issue in this incident?

      When someone presses a panic button does it make the police assume the worse?

      For the rentals I guess people could do an electronic deposit from their bank and email/print you proof. You could have a simple (bolted-down) computer in the customer area for this task, and ideally they could also see that you sent the funds back to them when they return the bike. Normally an acct. or mgr would do this but you could also have an isolated account for this purpose. For the extra schlep give the people some coffee or licorice!

    2. bz2 Says:

      What about a really low-fi solution: get some cash strongboxes and immobilise them (like cementing them into a piece of wall), then let customers put their deposit cash into there and give them the key.

      I guess theoretically they could make copies of those keys and then later return to rob the place at gunpoint and open the lockers with the copied keys, but is that particularly likely?

    3. Todd Edelman Says:

      The other nice thing about my idea is that it means the customers also don’t have to carry cash around.

    4. todd Says:

      glad you’re unhurt. we haven’t been robbed yet, but burglarized again and again, smash and grab. shit gets old! unfortunately the cameras haven’t helped. lots of grainy footage of hooded bad guys doing their thing.

    5. Alicia Says:

      I’m so glad no one was hurt! It sounds like you definitely did all you could. I think I’d freeze and then freak out in the presence of a gun. It’s good you were able to make some decent descriptions. Best of luck with the police and everything else!

    6. Koos Says:

      Hi Henry, ik begrijp de frustratie… Heb zelf weinig nare ervaringen maar we zijn meerdere malen bestolen, een keer 9 Bromptons tegelijk. Sterkte!!!

    7. Kelly Says:

      I’m very sorry to hear about the robbery – but it sounds like you’ve done a great job of gathering information on the guys responsible for it. I hope they’re caught. In the meantime, your new security precautions seem very sensible. Good luck!

    8. Haim Says:

      Hi Henry, so glad you’re ok. Thank goodness the kids were not there. I work in a business where we have thousands of people come every day, and cameras do help. Get a dvr, the silent alarm and make sure it is known that the place is under surveillance and connected to the cops. Good luck in moving on, after all it was just money, they print more of it every day 🙂

    9. Amoeba Says:

      I’m so sorry for your experience.

      Yes, you must change your security arrangements and review them every time a problem arises.

    10. pit Says:

      Glad you are safe. I have no advice, except that I hope that those kind of things won’t discourage you and your team. I hate theft, violence etc… but it is even more disgusting when people are attacking those doing good things. I mean if you want to destroy the system, go steal from a bank or a megastore, not your local shop. Then you might be tough guy. Doing it to a random shop around the corner is just pathetic.

      And it hurts when all the good energy you are trying to give is destroyed by a few stupid guys. It happened to me and it’s an awful feeling, so stay strong !

      You’re blog still rocks, who would think drama would happen on a bike store’s-blog ? (I hope it won’t happen again though)

    11. ReindeR Rustema Says:

      About the caller location detection when calling the police.

      In 2007 I witnessed a robbery in a videostore I visited in a suburb of Groningen. After the guy with the big knife left the store I immediately called 112 to report as many details as possible. I made the call in a normal, conversational, yet efficient manner while the operator sort of panicked. Repeatedly telling me not to panic and to stay calm, while I was only getting irritated by the inefficient way he was gathering information from me. When he finally asked me where I was I just answered with ‘here’. Assuming he could see where that was. After all, there is an EU directive from 2002 about this. As it turned out, calls from mobile phones all first go to a national call centre (KLPD Driebergen). There an operator determines what kind of emergency it is. In my case I asked for the police. Then you get the local operator (in my case not a good one). Along the way, my number and location gets lost. The operator could not see it he told me.

      Last July I had the same experience when I witnessed a head-on collision between two cars. Seconds after the crash I called 112. The operator could not see where I made the call from and she asked me to be precise about the location before she could send units to go there. I was puzzled, they could have already been on their way.

      After that experience I even started a petition for this EU-directive to be implemented. But an e-mail from me to the government in the meantime got answered with the confirmation that caller location exists in the Netherlands for alarm number 112. Also someone else told me his experience that caller location worked when he was reporting an accident from the highway. The operator told him correctly which highway he was on.

      It could be that protocol asks these operators to get the location from the system confirmed by the caller, but in my case I did not even get any indication of where I was from the operator. The triangulation method used to locate mobile phones is perhaps not that accurate, but no reason to not use it.

      Since it is unclear if the caller location system works or not I (temporarily?) retracted the online petition. If anyone knows more details I could revive it again. Henry’s experience certainly shows room for improvement. Especially if you consider that he was calling from a landline.

      By the way, the robbers of the videostore were caught months later. They did more of the same kind of robberies and were eventually caught and linked to the previous ones. In the long run most of them get caught, simply because they are not smart (IQ<70), violent and repeat their behaviour until they get imprisoned.

    12. henry Says:

      It’s disappointing that the emergency operators can’t use the mobile phone location data but in this case it’s not relevant: I called 112 from the shop’s land phone. You’d think it’d be easy for them to figure out where one is calling from when it’s actually connected by wire.

    13. Stan Engelbrecht Says:

      Hey guys. Sorry to hear about the robbery… Maybe this will cheer you up a bit. Myself and a good friend have been working on a project for the last 2 years called ‘Bicycle Portraits’. Our 6000 kilometer journey around South Africa by bicycle aimed to be a photographic study of South African commuter culture (something that is nearly non-existent here), but it’s turned into a portrait of a nation through the bicycles that they own and ride every day, revealing all manner of social, historical, class and cultural nuances never imagined. We are about to publish the best 165 portraits (from over 500 photographed) in book form, accompanied by 6 essays and beautiful watercolor maps for each portrait indicating where it was photographed. We are currently in the last phase of fundraising through pre-sales of the books (plus great extras like prints and special editions) on the wonderful Kickstarter platform.

      Please have a look at for our Kickstarter page, or visit to see the project online – and please spread the word!

      Hope you like it! Ride safe!


      Stan Engelbrecht
      Day One Publishing, South Africa
      +27(0)82 928 6586
      silencebegan (Skype)
      /bicycleportrait (Twitter)

    14. feddo Says:

      Cash only works. A friend who owns the chain of stores MarQt implemented PIN-only from day one. It saves time and hassle, easier bookkeeping and its safe.

      To be honest though, I would have guessed your present location to be relatively safe though. One wonders how they came upon the idea to rob you guys: it’s not exactly a typical Mocro-style holdup in terms of victim/store.

    15. MHS Says:

      how about getting some mean-looking guard dogs?

    16. henry Says:

      I was aware that Marqt does PIN only and already several years ago it got us thinking about doing the same. Our situation is just more complex and neither the PIN people nor the credit card people were willing to help us with several of the challenges. It looks like we’ve found another PIN and credit card acceptance company that will do what we need for the deposits.

      The guard dogs would be great if I weren’t so allergic to dogs. That’s a double bummer since I like dogs too.

    17. Todd Edelman Says:

      I would volunteer if it spared some dogs from having to be bike security slaves.

    18. Jeroen Says:

      Hallo Henry,

      So sorry to hear about this. Shit on those robbers!
      Keep up the good vibe and think also about an IP camera.
      Wish ya all the best positive if you have some time please feel free and come over for a coffee or something.
      I am happy more than ever with my own bikeshop.
      Greeting Jeroen

    19. henry Says:

      HĂ© Jeroen,
      Thanks for the kind words. Coincidentally I visited Wim the day he sealed the deal with you. Congrats on running your own shop. One day, probably during a papa day with the kids, I’ll stop by for that coffee. Werk ze!

    20. Justin Says:

      Henry that sucks, really terrible.
      One thing that people do is put excessive cash in a timed safe. Theres nothing the person in the store can do to access it except early in the morning or safe times.That’s what the Liquor stores do in LA, NY because they keep late hours and serve to the drunks and cretins.
      I would have “some” cash around, as a sacrificial offering. Life is cheap for these people, and if you upset the with a lot of effort for nothing they may take it out on you.
      Possibly a buzzer door at unsafe times-later hours?
      Cams are good though may not catch the recognizable features.

    21. Astrid Says:

      That is shocking, I hope the b*stards get what they deserve and you get over the shock. Glad no one got hurt.
      CCTV might be the way to go, in the least it will act as a deterrent.

    22. Rona Says:

      For cash could you invest in a timed safe? I remember working in the fastfood industry as a teen in America and we had a timed safe. It could only be opened at certain times and with two specific personnel. There was a sign on the door that said “Safe is on a timer. Only 100 dollars in the register”.

      When we would get more than 100 in the register, we had to slip it into the envelop slot on the safe. The store never had a lot of money- so it wasn’t that great of a hit.

      By the time robbers would have to wait around for a 30 minute safe to open, the cops would be there on a silent alarm.

    23. Ton Says:

      About camera’s:
      Camera’s isn’t anything. I was also threatened a few years ago (only a knife…). But the (color) camera only cached a glance. Not enough to recognize the guys.

      Think about good lighting the place as well. And use more than one camera. AND make shore it is not to easy to steal the recorder. (There are fake recorders just for this purpose).

      And I believe more in prevention. Like ‘no money at the place’. It attacks the bad guys like honey.

      I really hope the police find somehow these robbers.

      Al the best!

    24. Amin Mayahi Says:

      Beste Collega,

      Als een retailer weet ik heel goed wat op zo moment door je heen gaat.
      Dit heb ik namelijk meerdere momenten mee gemaakt. wens je namens voltallige team Republic Dutch Republic Bikes veel sterekte.
      Met vriendelijke groet
      Amin Mayahi

    25. Jens Schwoon Says:


      this is really a heavy story! Such guys ruin the payment with cash. Also they ruin the social life – these morons need to get into jail as soon as possible. Maybe you should buy yourself a ???

      Best, Jens

    Leave a Reply