Retail study finds BIPOC shoppers shoulder a ‘racial bias tax’

The metaphorical ‘tax’ is the experience burden that racialized customers suffer when shopping
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In January 2021, multinational cosmetic retailer Sephora released a racial bias study it had commissioned in 2019 – a year-long inquiry involving customers and employees across the entire US retail sector. Through their findings, the research advisors theorized that racialized shoppers incur a “racial bias tax” that greatly hampers customer treatment and shopping experience.  

“In perpetuating racially exclusionary treatment, retail stores contribute to the promotion and reproduction of racial hierarchies,” said Dr. Cassi Pittman Claytor, one of the scholars specializing in retail racism who contributed to the project.  

The study found that racial biases were felt most acutely by Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) customers, who are twice as likely to receive unfair treatment because of their their skin colour.

“I absolutely saw myself in that study,” Tomi Gbeleyi-Curtis, founder of Makeup For Melanin Girls (MFMG), told CBC News. “I’ve had experiences where people follow me around the store.”

The Canadian beauty entrepreneur said that Sephora’s study exposed the pervasiveness of racial biases in retail, and the fact they are not limited to the individual, CBC reported.

According to the report, three in five shoppers experienced discriminatory treatment while two in five have personally experienced unfair treatment due to their race or skin colour. 

The researchers also surveyed workers and discovered that three in four retail employees have witnessed bias at the workplace. One in three have even contemplated quitting their jobs when subjected to mistreatment from either colleagues or shoppers.

Pittman Claytor and fellow scholar Dr. David Crockett developed a model to illustrate racial biases that are endemic in retail. They argue that racially-biased and exclusionary treatment (RBET) manifests in two ways: as an invisible “tax” by which BIPOC shoppers cannot access products or staff assistance; and as patterns of ostracism and inequality through policies.

The metaphorical racial bias tax is an “experience burden” that BIPOC customers feel during their time in store. In addition to limited and even no access to certain products and customer service, BIPOC shoppers reportedly experience longer wait times or poor treatment from workers.  

In the latter form of RBET, shoppers of certain demographics are routinely stereotyped, or coded as “less desirable” than others. For example, “Black shoppers being treated as suspicious and subject to additional surveillance while in store,” according to the authors. 

“While Americans tend to believe in the power of the purse and that money is the great equalizer,” Pittman Claytor said in the report, “a multitude of studies have consistently revealed that racial minorities, particularly Black Americans, are not protected from stigmatizing and discriminatory treatment in retail settings.”

According to the report, BIPOC shoppers resort to “coping mechanisms” to circumvent uncomfortable retail experiences. 

Adjusting body language, dressing nicely, refraining from samples, and deliberately talking to workers to demonstrate the intention to shop are some ways customers minimize “anticipated biased experiences” in store. Some shoppers, however, avoid brick-and-mortar stores altogether and shop online.

Pittman Claytor and Crockett believe that “Racial bias and unfair treatment exists at all phases of the shopping journey, even before a shopper walks into a store.” 

Three in four customers feel retail marketing fails to show a diverse visual representation of skin tones, body types, and hair textures. While this is true for all sectors, according to the report, such homogenous marketing is especially dire in department stores, beauty, apparel, and mass merchants.

Gbeleyi-Curtis told CBC that limited complexion shades, especially for those of dark skin, has been a longstanding issue with cosmetic retailers. 

“For a long time, the message was — you should be fine with what is being offered, darker-skinned customers are not the majority,” she said. Her cosmetic brand, MFMG, features a wide range of products, including highlighters, lipsticks, eyeshadows, all designed for deeper complexions.

The study suggested that merchants revitalize marketing strategies and products to address the unique needs of all racial groups. Such diversity should also be reflected in the retail personnel, the report argued. It also advised companies to make a commitment for long-term store placements of BIPOC-made merchandise. 

When in the store, BIPOC shoppers also reported they felt “judged on the shopping journey.” Black shoppers, in particular, are three times more likely to feel prejudice based on their skin colour than their white counterparts, the report found.

BIPOC survey participants reported feeling “judged,” “misunderstood,” “passed off,” “defensive,” and “overlooked” during their shopping experience. 

The report suggests not only diversity and inclusion training for retail staff, but also specific anti-racism training to eliminate unconscious biases and racial profiling. 

Merchants should also ensure that all staff members are literate in the specific needs of BIPOC shoppers, that way BIPOC workers will not be overwhelmed with the responsibility to service all the BIPOC folks who enter the store.

Language is also important, according to the authors. “Remove policies and practices that disparage shoppers, such as using code words to classify Black shoppers or using seemingly race-neutral or colorblind logic to guide interactions with shoppers who have unique needs,” the report said.

The report concluded that US shoppers value meaningful, permanent action to address racial bias and unfair treatment in stores. Sephora said it will reform three main pillars of its own company action plan following the report: Marketing and Merchandising; In-store Experience and Operations; and Talent and Inclusive Workplaces.

“To hold ourselves accountable, we will be announcing our progress bi-annually with our community via a new [Diversity and Inclusion] dedicated section of our website,” the company added.

Sephora, however, is hardly the champion of racial sensitivity. 

In April 2019, an employee named “Sandy” had allegedly racially profiled R&B singer SZA who was trying to purchase a Fenty product. Sandy had reportedly called security on her, wrongfully assuming that the “Good Days” singer was stealing from the Calabasas, California location.

“Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing,” SZA tweeted, relaying the incident to her followers. 

In the end, the nine-time Grammy nominee managed to resolve the issue with the staff member. “We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy,” SZA tweeted.

“In addition to reaching out to SZA directly, we are gathering more information about the incident in order to take the proper next steps,” the company told Allure in a written statement. 

“We take complaints like this very seriously, profiling on the basis of race is not tolerated at Sephora.”

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