Shopping for EQUALITY

Tired of racism in retail, black shoppers are starting to speak up, and the industry is being forced to listen

Andrew Brimmer (see “Countdown to the 21st Century,” June 1998). That easily eclipses the gross national product of some leading world economies. But all of that doesn’t add up to respect by retail clerks and security guards.
“This treatment has some basis in stereotyping. People of color are seen as more likely to steal and therefore get policed more than whites,” says Dennis Hayes, general counsel for the NAACP. The desire to deter shoplifting, added to the racist mindset of some employees, he explains, leads to unacceptable treatment.

What’s ironic is that blacks are not typically the customers security should be monitoring. The retail industry admits that the profile of a typical thief is a middle-aged white woman. Even more alarming, employee theft accounted for $16.8 billion, or 38.4% of retail shrinkage in 1996, according to the National Retail Federation based in Washington, D.C. Shoplifting by customers accounted for $15.6 billion, or 35.8% of retail shrinkage.

Again, the numbers don’t correspond with the treatment. “The behavior starts at the top,” says Hayes. “The CEO sets the tone for the company. There has got to be some mechanism where that message is delivered down to the troops,” he adds.

When the message doesn’t make it down to the troops, you have employees, like guards, who don’t relate to the concept of customer service and carry out their own agendas.

“Guards are typically found in sophisticated retail operations, department stores and chain stores,” says Jerry V. Wilson, a former Washington, D.C., police chief. Guards may include employees of
the company, individuals hired by the store under contract or off-duty police officers, as exemplified in both the Eddie Bauer and Dillard’s incidents.

Those off-duty officers, who are by profession trained differently than clerks, can pose a serious problem, concedes Pamela Rucker, spokesperson for the National Retail Federation. “The retailer has a very high threshold for determining probable cause. Security must have strong evidence before determining that the customer is going to steal,” she explains. “The police, on the other hand, have a lower threshold and a completely different set of criteria for determining probable cause than retailers do.”

In recent years, a number of retailers, including Eddie Bauer, have stopped using off-duty officers as security personnel, says Rucker. “Now they stand in one place and are used as a deterrent.”
Evelyn Darden, a lawyer currently handling a consumer racism case in the law offices of Addison Darden in Glen Burnie, Maryland, suggests that retailers take immediate action and review current security policies, expedite the handling of customer complaints, hire minorities who interact with customers, increase the use of minority merchants and vendors, and establish a community advisory council.

While those remedies make the retailer responsible, consumers should not be passive, says Hampton, who complained to customer relations and called her husband, a lawyer, from Dillard’s after the episode. “People don’t know that they can take it a step further. Your first reaction is to do what they ask you to do. But keep your cool and

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