"They ask them to grab this, grab that," said Elena, who asked that her last name not be published. "We actually sometimes can see at the register the baby holding them - and they just leave."
At Beauty Town, on Broad Street near Ellsworth in South Philadelphia, a man walked into the store about 5:20 p.m. March 12, jumped up to grab as many packs of hair as he could from the rack, and darted out onto Broad before anyone could stop him.
Chris Lee, the store's manager, said the man had cased his store before, and was in and out of the shop so fast that his face wasn't even recorded on the surveillance system.
Managers at hair shops across the city, from West Philly to Crescentville, report similar thefts of hair weaves - a popular solution for women with short or damaged locks who want to make their hair appear longer or fuller while maintaining a realistic look that many hair wigs fall short of. The thefts are part of a national trend as the cost of hair weaves skyrockets.
Weave thieves hit beauty shops across Atlanta and its suburbs in 2011, stealing up to $100,000 worth of hair in robberies that occasionally turned violent. A shop in Houston was robbed of $150,000 in hair weaves, and thieves in Chicago pried open the doors to a beauty-supply store and stole about $90,000 worth of hair last spring.
In Dearborn, Mich., a beauty-supply shop owner was shot to death during a holdup last March. The gunmen got away with 80 packages of extensions worth $10,000.
"The hair is getting really expensive," said Lee, who has worked in beauty shops for the past 15 years, and said the price of human hair increased at least three times in 2011 while the quality declined.
Lee used to sell two packs of human hair (it usually takes more than one pack to complete a hairdo) for $150 - then the price of the two-for deal climbed to $190. He said two packs of the best hair in his shop would cost around $240 now.
Other beauty-shop owners and salon workers told Lee that the hair weave may be establishing a place for itself as a big-ticket item among street hustlers.
Even at a deep discount, the weave is a big step up from selling single cigarettes, or bootleg CDs and DVDs.
Police note that hair thefts pale in comparison to larger-scale thefts because the total dollar value of the stolen products usually isn't high enough to warrant an intense investigation.
Aside from that, solvability factors - like surveillance footage and solid suspect descriptions - are typically limited. Hair weaves are ubiquitous in beauty-supply stores and salons throughout Philadelphia, making it difficult to tell whether a person bought the hair or stole it if he or she were spotted selling it on the street.
"It happens," Lee said, shrugging his shoulders in front of a wall of hair hanging limp in plastic packages. "Probably the bad economy."
Contact Phillip Lucas at 215-854-5914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @UnPhiltered. Read his blog, Philly Confidential, at www.phillyconfidential.com