Consumer racial profiling is the antithesis of the welcoming behavior that most independent retailers take pride in, and yet there is no doubt that it happens.   “Shopping while Black” is a phrase often associated with this type of profiling – African-American customers sensing that they are being treated differently because of their race.  One of the first incidents to be described in this way involved a lawsuit brought by a young Black male accused by an employee at an Eddie Bauer store in suburban Washington, D.C.  of having stolen the shirt he was wearing,

This was of course an egregious case, but research shows that many black consumers experience “microaggressions,” which are indignities that may be intentional or accidental. They sometimes feel ignored, and at other times feel singled out for added attention as potential shoplifters.  In fact, a 2018 Gallup poll of Black Americans found that nearly two-thirds perceived that Blacks are treated less fairly than whites while shopping.

A common complaint is that sales people assume that minority customers can’t afford the most expensive goods, and therefore steer them towards lower priced items.  This is an easy mistake to make with any customer whose appearance implies that he or she doesn’t have the means to buy luxury goods, but when it happens to an entire racial group it is a clear example of profiling.

I would not have thought that our store could be guilty of profiling, but a consumer survey some years ago included the comment that we never greeted Asian customers.  This led us to questions to assumptions we may have made about Asian shoppers.  Did we think that because they tended to be quiet, they wanted to be left alone?  Had we generalized from our experience with foreign students coming into the store that they didn’t speak much English?  Were we, in fact, considering them a group instead of as individuals?

The introspection that this comment led to was very valuable, and helped us set the goal of welcoming everyone coming through our door with a friendly greeting.  Customer service needs to be personalized based on the cues that we get after that greeting rather than any pre-made assumptions.  The future of our business success – and our society’s wellbeing – depends on our willingness to confront and eliminate any subtle, and hopefully unintended, raced-based behavior so that we can make sure that every customer feels equally welcome in our stores. 

Happy Retailing, 

Carol “Orange” Schroeder

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