While Black Shoppers Participate in #BlackoutDay2020, Sephora Shows Us the Receipts on Its Retail Bias Study

Illustration for article titled While Black Shoppers Participate in #BlackoutDay2020, Sephora Shows Us the Receipts on Its Retail Bias Study
Photo: Manuel Esteban (Shutterstock)

Today at The Glow Up, we’re not celebrating a typical Big Beauty Tuesday, where we primarily focus on Black-owned beauty and fashion brands. Instead, as Black shoppers are encouraged to shop exclusively Black (or not at all) for #BlackoutTuesday2020—work we do almost daily—we’re once again turning our attention to the many major retailers who displayed black boxes and statements of solidarity on June 2 for #BlackoutTuesday. In the five weeks since, we’ve kept an eye on what initiatives are emerging to guarantee more inclusion, parity and opportunity in beauty and fashion—industries that have long excluded Black and Brown consumers, creatives and qualified talents alike.


But what about #ShoppingWhileBlack? The phrase and hashtag have gained significant traction over the past several years, as Black shoppers have become more vocal about the racism we’ve encountered in any number of retail environments—from “dollar” to luxury department stores—often, just for daring to browse while Black.

Among well-known retailers like Barneys New York, Macy’s and Victoria’s Secret, beauty emporium Sephora famously faced their own challenges last year when former employee-turned-star chanteuse SZA reported being racially profiled in the retailer’s Calabasas, Calif. location. Soon after, Sephora hosted a day of company-wide diversity training last May. This June, their social media solidarity was backed up by a commitment to designer Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, which asked several major retailers to devote at least 15 percent of their shelf space to Black-owned prestige brands (reflecting the just-over 13 percent of the population that African Americans comprise). Sephora was the first of the retailers James called upon to take the pledge.

As the company shared with The Glow Up, “Sephora recognized the importance of driving necessary change, beginning with its own business.” Today, Tuesday, July 7, Sephora honored #BlackoutDay2020 with the latest in a series of training sessions for corporate and store employees which incorporated both racial bias training and the results of Sephora’s Retail Bias Study. The study, commissioned late last year, is “a first-of-its-kind in size and scope national study on racial bias in retail.”

To develop their “research-driven curriculum for all employees to mitigate bias and drive positive change,” Sephora partnered with the experts of the NeuroLeadership Institute; leading the multi-phasic study are Dr. Cassi Pittman Claytor, Climo Junior Professor, Department of Sociology, Case Western Reserve University, and Dr. David K. Crockett, Professor of Marketing, Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina. Its goal? “To better understand how racial hierarchies privilege some consumers and disadvantage others in stores and business...The study examines both consumers’ and retail workers’ experiences, at Sephora and while shopping more broadly. It takes an intersectional approach that examines the experiences of consumers across racial groups.”


“I have to admit that I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, to have been invited to work with Sephora on the study that they commissioned on racial bias and racism in retail settings,” Dr. Pittman Claytor said in a statement. “Without a doubt, retail racism is a pervasive problem, but rarely do you see companies willing to act beyond superficial and quickly implemented solutions, that are unlikely to result in lasting change. By taking a step back and first conducting a systematic study, Sephora is taking the first step to employ a data-driven approach, which will generate the findings necessary so that real solutions—solutions based on information gleaned from experiences of customers and employees—can be developed and implemented.

“While it is not feasible to completely eliminate racial bias in retail settings, it is possible to implement formal policies and to incentivize and encourage informal policies that promote inclusion and ensure that all customers have a satisfactory experience,” Pittman Claytor continued. “I am optimistic that the results of this study will help not only Sephora but other retailers take bold steps that will ensure that Black clients, as well as other marginalized groups, are treated with the respect that they deserve.”


The results of Sephora’s study couldn’t come at a better time—and hopefully, those aforementioned other retailers really are watching: On Sunday, CNBC spoke with Pittman Claytor about the persistent issue of retail bias even in the face of the well-documented power of the Black dollar for an article titled: “As Black buying power grows, racial profiling by retailers remains [a] persistent problem.

Getting snubbed by a salesperson. Followed and looked at suspiciously by a store employee. Hassled by security—and in some cases, reported to police...retail environments are one of the places where Black Americans say discrimination is prevalent, even as Black buying power grows.


None of the above issues is news to Black consumers, but perhaps most striking were the results of a Gallup poll cited in CNBC’s article, which read (italics mine):

Nearly 30% of Black Americans said they were treated unfairly because of their race when shopping in the past 30 days, according to the 2018 Gallup poll, the most recent data available. That’s higher than the percentage of Black Americans who reported recent mistreatment in dealings with police, at the workplace, in a health-care environment or at a restaurant or other entertainment place during that same period.


In addition to collating existing research and data, Drs. Pittman Claytor and Crockett “produced a new and innovative model that helps to explain the underlying processes that generate retail racism and contribute to the pervasiveness of a racial hierarchy across retail settings.” Their completed first phase of research confirms not only the existence but the pervasiveness of racial bias across “all retail settings,” pointing out that it accordingly “impacts all customers at every stage of the shopping experience, granting some preferential treatment and others exclusionary treatment.”

While those findings may seem to state the obvious, the researchers go further in explaining how “racially-biased and exclusionary treatment (RBET)“ manifests in customers’ experiences, including what they call “RBET as a tax”:

Some customers of color (e.g. Black men) pay more in this tax than others, and the added costs could consist of time spent waiting, or in the form of an emotional toll...RBET [is] a pattern of exclusion and inequality—barriers and detours that end progress or distort it for marginalized groups, including structural conditions that negatively impact all consumers of a particular racial group, irrespective of who the salesperson is, and policies, even those that seem race-neutral, that are implemented across an organization that adversely impact an entire class of consumers.


The Phase I research further identifies the ways in which RBET shows up in the shopping experience by explaining how a lack of policy and expectations in mitigating racial bias “may allow individual employees to use their own discretion when interacting with a client, which can lead to unfair treatment. This goes beyond ‘poor service’ and really exposes what may be happening while shopping,” they report. The unfair treatment manifests in myriad bias-related issues, like “gatekeeping”—an example of which is code words used to profile black shoppers; “curating” products based on a customer’s presumed needs, status or income; and organizational choices such as strategic merchandising that reinforces bias and exclusivity. However, perhaps of most importance to retailers, they also demonstrate how such treatment and practices can affect their bottom line.

Consumers have adopted a range of coping mechanisms in response to RBET, the most common being to leave the store. When this occurs, retailers may lose out on a valuable and loyal customer, as well as lose valuable client feedback and the opportunity to combat and prevent unjust treatment in the future.


“We used the first phase of our study as a teaching tool for both front-line and corporate employees to show how racial bias can create unfair barriers for consumers anywhere in the retail journey. Now, we’re diving deeper,” says Sephora’s Chief Marketing Officer, Deborah Yeh. “The next phases of research will help us understand how racial bias shows up for consumers of different racial backgrounds, retail employees, and in stores across the U.S. retail landscape. While we’re always piloting ways to improve our service, we know we can do better, and findings should help prioritize interventions that will make the biggest impact for Sephora and the retail industry.”

To Yeh’s point, while the rest of retail scrambles (and in some cases, struggles) to remove bias and improve equity for both its employees and customers, Sephora seems to have had a headstart, as it has been launching initiatives to create a more supportive environment for several years now. This includes the 2018 launch of its SephoraIN Communities, employee support and resource networks that include SephoraNoir for Black employees and allies; SephoraPrism, dedicated to the interests of the LGBTQA+ community; Mi Gente, for Hispanic employees; leadership and development programs for female employees, working parents and more.


In addition to over $1 million in donations to organizations focused on empowering Black communities and fund matching and points donation initiatives, as the uprisings across America amplified calls for structural changes across industries, Sephora shared data on the percentage of Black and minority employees across the company as part of Black beauty entrepreneur and Glow Up 50 honoree Sharon Chuter’s #PullUpForChange initiative, further “committing to improving representation at every level from recruiting to executive leadership.” (At Sephora, executive-level leadership across teams is currently comprised of 45 percent people of color and 6 percent Black or African American.)


To help inform this and other initiatives to resolve racial bias and equity, the company has assembled a team of Sephora Equity Advisors, “a group of leaders and activists who work at the intersection of race, culture, and social justice,” including activist April Reign, who coined the viral #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

“Racism and racial bias are complex issues; for organizations looking to effectively take that on, it’s important that companies take into account the perspective of experts in this space and those who have lived this experience,” says Reign. “As Sephora’s Equity Advisors and Partners, we are equipped to do just that. From providing inputs to execution of the Retail Bias Study to ongoing counsel on a range of issues facing the company today, we are proud to work alongside Sephora to bring about much-needed change within the retail industry, for the betterment of our communities.”


Updated: Tuesday, 7/7/20 at 5:55 p.m.: Sephora reached out to The Glow Up on Tuesday afternoon to clarify that last year’s widely publicized diversity training was not, in fact, in response to SZA’s experience in the Calabasas location. According to their team, “the store closure was part of a long journey in Sephora’s aspiration to create a more inclusive beauty community and workplace. While it is true that SZA’s experience occurred prior to the launch of the ‘We Belong to Something Beautiful’ campaign, neither the campaign nor training session was the result of [her] tweet [about the incident].” Our copy was edited to reflect this clarification.

Maiysha Kai is managing editor of The Glow Up, host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast and Big Beauty Tuesdays, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door. May I borrow some sugar?


Mr Boomman

This “training” of employees concerning bias, racism etc just seems to be more like “We’re going to show you how to tolerate what you don’t like....so we can make money. Do what you will after work... off camera.” Can people change? Absolutely. Just not when you force them to.