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Groundbreaking Sephora Study Shows Racial Bias is Entrenched in the US Retail Experience

Black Woman Shopping

Over half of shoppers of color say they don’t receive fair treatment. Here’s why it’s a problem for all of us.

A new study proves a majority of shoppers of color say they don’t receive fair treatment.

For many moms, browsing a boutique or visiting the mall is a source of deep joy and pleasure. But for moms of color, shopping can be alienating and downright discriminatory. A new study commissioned by Sephora, a Diversity Best Practices partner, shows how pervasive racially driven bias and unfair treatment are in the US retail industry. It is the first-ever national research study focused on racial bias in US retail settings.

The beauty retailer conducted a host of customer and employee surveys, interviews and academic research from 2019 to 2020. One of the biggest findings? That racially biased and exclusionary treatment (RBET) is more prominent for BIPOC shoppers who have disproportionately either personally experienced and/or have witnessed or heard about unfair treatment based on their ethnicity/skin color in stores, according to researchers Dr. Cassi Pittman Claytor and Dr. David Crockett. In the study, the term “BIPOC” was used for shoppers who self-identified as Hispanic, Asian or Pacific Islander (including East and South Asian), and African American and other. “Other” consisted of Middle Eastern, American Indian, Alaska native or those who selected “prefer not to say.”

According to the results, one in two Black shoppers have personally experienced unfair treatment based on their ethnicity or skin color. That’s twice as many as the one in four white shoppers who say the same; one in three Asian and Latinx shoppers have also experienced unfair treatment. These shoppers report feeling judged, misunderstood, defensive, passed off (to employees who look like them) and overlooked.

Black shoppers specifically report experiencing in-store frustrations, such as feeling like they’re being followed or watched, being asked to leave bags at the counter, having an associate speak in an unfriendly tone and being asked personal questions.

To prevent this, BIPOC shoppers say they navigate the in-store experience by leveraging different coping mechanisms that are preventative (i.e., dressing nicely), or reactive (i.e., adjusting body language by keeping hands out of pockets), but it’s clearly not enough, as instances of overt racial bias continue.

For BIPOC shoppers, the in-store experience can be alienating from the very beginning, the study found. Two of out three retail shoppers think marketing fails to showcase a diverse range of skin tones, body types and hair textures. Two out of three say stores fail to stock an equally-distributed assortment of products catering to different customers’ tastes and preferences. And three out of four shoppers say stores don’t provide a store associate familiar with their unique needs or race/ethnicity.

Retailers have a big incentive to address this problem. The study found that after experiencing racial bias, three out of five people will not shop at that store’s location ever again, while one out of two will not shop at any of the retailer’s locations in the future. Given how crucial retail will be to our country’s economic recovery, racial bias has long-lasting implications for everyone, white shoppers included.

Despite the rise of the internet, in-store shopping experience is still a big business. In 2020, the National Retail Federation stated that of the top 50 online retailers, nearly all operate brick-and-mortar stores and, as an industry, online sales surprisingly make up only 10 percent of all retail sales. Finally, Forbes reported that consumers spend significantly more per visit in-store than online as shoppers crave the visceral experience of browsing and purchasing. The Journal of Consumer Psychology reports that impulse shopping is greater in store: 89 percent of women and 79 percent of men add additional items to their cart versus 77 percent of women and 67 percent of men online. In short, the in-store experience might be consolidated and reimagined in the coming years, but it is evident that it will not go away completely.

So, what can retailers do? Working Mother Media’s Diversity Best Practices, an organization dedicated to giving companies the tools and resources they need to build more inclusive workplaces, is leveraging the learnings from Sephora’s report and our work in the space for clients concerned with this very issue. We suggest:

  • Re-examine and audit the existing policies and processes. Routinely conduct audits on the shopping experiences through reviews of security tapes, secret shopper evaluations, and all incident forms. Look for patterns where individuals are monitored based on race, gender, age or any other diversity dimensions. Use routine focus groups and survey data from existing employees and shoppers to assess any gaps and conduct these assessments regularly.
  • Utilize key personnel such as loss prevention, security officers, store employees and management to provide individual documentation/witness reports of each incident and ensure they receive bias training on an annual basis.
  • Incentivize store managers to create diverse slates in their recruiting efforts to diversify the representation of store employees to both attract and meet the needs of diverse shoppers.
  • Ensure awareness training is conducted quarterly and includes specific and likely scenarios so employees engage in the practice of “doing the right thing,” and so they are prepared for the actual in-store experience.
  • Equip store leadership with the tools needed to provide ongoing and routine feedback to store employees to mitigate bias and microaggressions. Recognize and reward inclusive acts and behaviors.
  • Utilize opportunities to display company values and policies in-store and ensure those communications are available in different versions, including: multiple languages and accessible formats, e.g. braille and digital, when possible.

Today’s shoppers have an abundance of choices, which creates an urgency for optimizing the in-store experience so that all customers have a welcoming, positive and engaging brand interaction. Retailers simply can’t afford the significant losses prompted by RBET, so it begs the question: What are they going to do about it?

To learn more about the study and Sephora’s action plan, please visit: www.sephora.com/diversity-and-inclusion

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Over half of shoppers of color say they don’t receive fair treatment. Here’s why it’s a problem for all of us.

A new study proves a majority of shoppers of color say they don’t receive fair treatment.

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