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With the rising buying energy of blacks, the creation of breed profiles by retailers stays an ongoing downside

Lorenzo Boyd, Assistant Professor, Director of the Center for Advanced Policing and Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of New Haven.

Source: Lorenzo Boyd

Lorenzo Boyd was in the market for a new car and wanted to buy a luxury SUV. He went to a Lexus dealer and walked through the property, expecting the vacant seller to be run over. But that didn't happen.

After asking for help, the seller approached Lorenzo slowly and when he did, he directed him to a cheaper model.

"I remember that guy said to me: & # 39; Are you sure you want this? This is a bit expensive," Boyd recalled.

Boyd, a 50-year-old professor of criminal justice and vice president of diversity and inclusion at the University of New Haven, said this scenario has happened many times – not just for him, but for many black Americans when they go on a trip to the mall or browse the aisles of a grocery store.

Be insulted by a seller. Followed and looked suspiciously by a store clerk. Harassed by the security service – and in some cases reported to the police.

George Floyd's murder, which began with a retailer's emergency call, has sparked protests and a push to police reform. It has taken a closer look at the everyday places where black Americans are discriminated against – not only when dealing with the police, but also at work, in grocery stores and in shopping centers.

In recent weeks, retailers, along with Corporate America, have condemned racism in the news and committed to expanding their diversity efforts through their recruitment and training efforts and beyond their four walls. Walmart said Walmart, together with its creation, will invest $ 100 million over a five-year period to create a new racial justice center. Nike released a television ad when protesters filled streets in many U.S. cities, saying to viewers, "Don't do it … don't pretend there isn't a problem in America." A large industry retail group, the National Retail Federation, said it was forming a diversity working group to look for solutions. And retailers, from TJ Maxx and Gap to Victoria & # 39; s Secret, have prominent messages on their websites about their efforts to combat racial injustice.

However, retail environments are one of the places where black Americans say discrimination is widespread even as blacks' purchasing power grows. Industry observers and activists say the problem persists and retailers need to do more to investigate how they treat and serve black customers.

An ongoing problem

For more than two decades, Gallup has been asking black Americans about places where they have been discriminated against. In every poll since 1997, blacks are the most likely to report unfair shopping treatment.

Almost 30% of black Americans said they had been treated unfairly because of their race while shopping in the past 30 days. This comes out of the 2018 Gallup survey, the latest available data. That is more than the percentage of black Americans who reported abuse of police, work, health, or restaurant or other entertainment venues over the same period.

Fifty-nine percent of black Americans in 2018 said they were treated less fairly than whites in downtown or mall stores. Remarkably, this percentage in Gallup surveys has increased over the years.

The experience is so widespread that black Americans and academics have a term for it: "Shopping while Black".

Cassi Pittman Claytor, assistant professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, examines contemporary forms of discrimination focusing on bourgeois blacks.

She said vendors, in-store security guards – and even company policies – can reinforce inaccurate stereotypes that black customers are more likely to steal or cannot afford high-end items.

Her research has shown that money is not a compensation for black Americans when they enter a store, even if they have a high income, work on Wall Street or attend elite schools.

"It doesn't matter how much money you have, what your credentials are," she said. "Your prestigious credentials don't earn you additional respect. When you enter a store, you could still be treated like a criminal."

She said it was a problem that she not only studies but also knows personally. Her aunt stopped shopping online at a luxury retailer after visiting a store and being ignored. Her husband feels out of place when shopping with Whole Foods along with mostly white customers. And her brother only buys in certain stores with certain sellers so that he gets good service.

"If you bring a black family together, everyone will have that kind of experience," she said.

Boyd, professor and administrator at the University of New Haven, said the coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the challenges for black and minority buyers, especially young black men. Some retailers were already looking at them with suspicion, he said. Now, he said, they could face even more racial prejudice if they went into a shop with a mask.

"This creates a certain level of discomfort for certain people," he said.

Pedestrians walk past an Urban Outfitters store in San Francisco, USA on November 18, 2016.

David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Code names and locked shelves

In recent weeks, some retailers' business practices have led to backlash and policy changes.

Urban Outfitters responded to racial profiling allegations after several former social media employees said the store's employees sometimes used code names such as "Nick", "Nicky" or "Nicole" for customers suspected of shoplifting. They said the code names were used disproportionately to refer to black buyers. The practice was previously reported on the Style News website associated with NBC's "Today Show".

Urban Outfitters confirmed that employees used "Nick" and similar names for potential thieves, but said in a statement to NBC's Today Style that "this policy has been abused."

"We are deeply sad and concerned about reports of race profiles in our stores and apologize to any customer who has felt unwelcome," said a statement. "Urban Outfitters absolutely rejects racism, racial discrimination and profiling of any kind. We have revised our shoplifting policy to prevent the use of code words."

The clothing retailer announced that it would also conduct a third-party review of business practices, hire a wider workforce, and conduct mandatory diversity training in its stores.

Anthropology, which shares the same parent company, faced similar allegations. The company replied in an Instagram post on June 11 that employees "never have, and never will have, a code word that is based on a customer's race or ethnicity."

"Our company has a zero tolerance policy regarding discrimination or racial profiles in any form," it wrote.

Walmart, Walgreens and CVS have kept multicultural hair care and beauty products, which were mainly sold to black women, in some stores in closed displays because products that are commonly used by white customers were nearby in unlocked displays. These retailers have announced in the past few weeks to end this practice.

Two years ago, a California woman sued Walmart for discrimination in a federal court, saying she was sad, angry, and embarrassed to have to ask a store clerk to unlock the items she needed – including a 48-cent comb.

Walmart said in a statement that the products were included in about a dozen of its approximately 4,700 stores and that the cases should prevent shoplifting from a variety of products, including electronics and personal care products.

"As a retailer serving millions of customers with different backgrounds every day, Walmart doesn't tolerate discrimination," the company said.

CVS said it is working with suppliers of women and minorities and has expanded its structured hair and color cosmetics by 35% over the past year to add more items and brands for black customers.

"We have a firm non-discrimination policy that applies to all aspects of our business and our product protection measures have never been based on the race or ethnicity of our customers," the company said in a statement.

Walgreens said in a statement that it ensures that multicultural hair care and beauty products are not kept in locked boxes and said "this was the case in a limited number of our stores".

Some advocates have urged retailers to take proactive steps to make their stores and product lines more inclusive.

Aurora James, creative director and founder of a fashion brand in Brooklyn, urged the brands to use at least 15% of their shelf space for products from black-owned companies. The percentage is said to roughly correspond to the percentage of blacks that make up the U.S. population. So far, Sephora and Rent the Runway have been among the retailers who have followed the 15 percent promise.

Claytor said that in addition to reviewing their product range, companies should also closely examine their corporate culture, staffing levels in the retail space, and the diversity of company employees in leadership positions such as management or board positions.

When it comes to beauty, for example, she said that the discrepancy can be obvious when a brand or store has a lot of light beige tones and just a few shades of brown. However, it can also be transferred to other types of business activities.

"Do your products meet the needs of different customers?" She said. "There is definitely room for improvement."

A growing consumer base

Companies should pay attention to how they deal with black Americans for another reason: they are a huge customer base and their market influence is growing, said Cheryl Grace, senior vice president of strategic alliances in the United States and customer loyalty at Nielsen.

According to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, the purchasing power of blacks was $ 1.4 trillion in 2019. That is higher than Mexico's gross domestic product. It is predicted to grow to $ 1.8 trillion by 2024.

This growth exceeds the purchasing power of whites. Between 2000 and 2018, the purchasing power of blacks increased by 114%, while the purchasing power of whites increased by 89%, according to Nielsen.

Black Americans are also younger than the rest of the Americans. According to Nielsen, about 54% of black Americans are 34 years old and younger. The average age of a black American is 32 years. This is compared to the average age of 38 for all Americans.

This youthfulness means that companies that attract and serve black customers can create shopping patterns for life.

"The sooner you register us as a consumer, the longer you are likely to have us," said Grace. "You get us at a younger age and you can keep us for decades."

She said companies should pay attention to black consumers for other reasons as well. Among them, she said, they tend to introduce new products early, be it a new food or a new fashion line. Younger and older black adults outperform the entire US population using apps and spend more time on smartphones and tablets than the general population on video, audio and social networks.

And as tech-savvy consumers, Grace said they were more inclined to share their thoughts on social media about all things – including brands – whether for better or for worse.

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