- As a Brown woman who grew up in Massachusetts, Mita Mallick says she experienced discrimination in retail stores from a young age, like being ignored at furniture stores with her family, and being followed around and told not to touch anything.
- In adulthood, Mallick says she’s been tracked and followed, her return receipts have been scrutinized, she’s been denied discounts and coupons, and she’s often been mistaken for a store worker by white shoppers.
- Now as the head of diversity and inclusion and cross-cultural marketing at Unilever, Mallick says it’s vital for retailers to reform their policies and work to dismantle structural racism — by hiring multicultural staff, having a behavior-focused shoplifting policy, and by sourcing diverse suppliers and vendors.
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As a Brown woman growing up in the US, outside of Boston, Massachusetts, my memories of not feeling included and welcomed in stores start at a very young age. My family and I would visit the local furniture store where most of the time we would be ignored, as white families coming in after us were greeted with big wide smiles and ushered to see the latest dining room set.
On several other occasions, when we weren’t ignored, we were followed around in the store. I vividly recall a white associate once snapping at my younger brother and me to “Keep your hands off the couches!” At the same time a little white boy with a Red Sox hat was running around, bouncing off the couches and diving straight into the mattresses. I always wondered why we got followed around in that store. If we were there to shoplift, it wouldn’t have been easy to stuff that sofa sectional in our pockets.
As a young child, I knew that sinking feeling I would get in the pit of my stomach. I was different. We were different, and we were treated differently. And there was nothing I could do about it.
As an adult, that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach continued, the microaggressions and the discrimination occurring in many a store I entered. I would wait to catch the attention of a beauty advisor at the counter, while white customers magically got their attention right away.When I did make it into the chair, comments ranged from “Your skin is too dark for our foundation” and “Your skin is really ashy” to “Wow, those dark spots are pretty dark and deep, you should do something about that.”
My unopened returns with tags and receipts have been scrutinized, I’ve been tracked and followed in stores, I’ve been denied discounts, and been told my coupons were expired, despite exceptions being made for white customers. Cashiers have raised their eyebrows when I make a large purchase, double-checking to make sure I knew the exact total and that I could indeed afford it.
But the most puzzling and eye-opening microaggressions have come from fellow customers. While shopping for myself on numerous occasions, flipping through dresses on racks, white customers have approached me, trying to hand me their items on hangers, saying in a friendly, sing-songy voice: “Hi, can you please start a fitting room for me?”
I’m not wearing a headset or carrying a walkie talkie. I’m not carrying a scanner. I don’t have a name tag on. I am not wearing anything that might be considered part of a store associate uniform.
Except, well yes, I am Brown. Is that what makes it seem like I would be best qualified to start you a fitting room?
Depending on my mood, I will be gentle and say, “I can’t help you, I don’t work here.” On a not-so-great day, the response is: “What makes you think I work here?”
So, to all the retailers out there scrambling to address racism, here’s my advice.
From my experience as a diversity and inclusion leader, and more importantly as a valued customer, it’s your job to begin to dismantle structural racism that exists in your stores and is experienced by people of color. Here are seven ways you can create a more inclusive shopping experience for me, and countless other Brown and Black People:
1. Hire staff that represents your multicultural customers
Black, Latinx, and Asian Americans make up 40% of the US population, and together create a combined spending power of $3.2 trillion — something that retailers can no longer ignore.
Diversity of thought doesn’t happen without diversity of representation. Hire staff that represents and can serve this multicultural base. They will come up with new ways to serve your customers, and bring innovative thinking to your store. Show you value your staff by focusing on equal pay and benefits, and set targets to ensure diverse representation at manager and supervisory levels.
2. Have a clear shoplifting policy focused on behavior, not race
Shoplifting can cost the retail industry billions of dollars a year. Retailers need policies to counter shoplifting and policies must be laser focused on behavior, and not on race. Ensure suspicious behavior is defined, so it does not become synonymous with suspicious people, who could be someone who “looks” or “acts different” because of the color of their skin, their hair, or an accent.
Suspicious behavior can include individuals entering and exiting a store repeatedly without making a purchase, watching the cashier or sales associates, or canvassing the store for security cameras and alarms.
Ensure security guards, who might not be employees of the retailer, also understand the policy. Don’t just write a clearly articulated and well-defined policy and post it — spend the time to educate your staff on all the fine details.
3. Focus on rolling-out mandatory training, followed-up with surprise audits
Start with an audit of where the company is on its inclusion journey and assess the needs of your staff. Be specific about your goals to get the most out of trainings and workshops. If you don’t have a Head of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, it’s time to hire one.
Be clear on what it means to be an anti-racist organization and support anti-racism. Remember the definition of “unconscious biases,” as defined by UC San Francisco, is “social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness.”
Unconscious bias can be triggered in a store environment when the stress levels are high and individuals are multi-tasking. At the same time, let’s not use “unconscious bias” to hide or cover racists remarks or acts. Learning to be anti-racist means to own the conscious bias we have when it comes to Brown and Black communities.
Don’t shy away from delving into mistakes from other retailers — including Anthropologie, Zara, Moschino, and Versace, to name a few — as you build your training. Allow space for staff to practice and learn by role playing scenarios that may come up in store. This is a good time to also role play situations that involve your shoplifting policy.
Remember, a one-time training isn’t enough. Develop a multi-year plan with multiple touchpoints, and ways to embed continuous learning. Conduct periodic surprise store audits to identify gaps in training, ensure compliance, and terminate non compliant employees. Ensure these audits are tied to managers’ and supervisors’ compensation.
4. Implement a zero-tolerance policy and reinforce it
Create and implement a zero-tolerance policy that provides managers clear guidelines, including behaviors that are not tolerated: racist language, harassment, threats, inappropriate internet use, bringing firearms to the store, violent behavior, and other misconduct. This provides managers a framework in place to rely on and reinforce the policy, for both employees and customers.
5. Launch a supplier diversity program to ensure diverse on-shelf representation
Black consumers wield $1.3 trillion in buying power each year. According to Nielsen, they are “conscious shoppers,” and seek to support brands that feature Black talent as well as Black owned businesses.
Launch a supplier diversity program to source diverse suppliers and vendors, particularly from your local community. This is an opportunity to bring innovation and differentiated products and services to your store, and a critical step to ensure diversity of representation exists on your shelves.
6. Improve diverse representation in store images
Plus size mannequins. Halloween costumes for children using wheelchairs on display. Gender neutral clothing. Images of dark-skinned models with dreadlocks. Foundation for all skin tones and products for multicultural hair on shelves, visible and accessible to all. Whether it’s displays, posters, ads in circulars and flyers, social media posts and websites, each of these touchpoints in the customer journey matters. In-store representation matters to create an inclusive shopping experience.
7. Address customer feedback immediately, and tie it to manager compensation
Take customer complaints very seriously. Document them as they are received; both in store, online, and in your social channels, and promptly forward complaints to store management. Meet customer complaints with sincere apologies that include actions you will take to improve moving forward.
Review themes of complaints on a quarterly basis, both at a store level, and a macro level. Ensure this feedback is tied to store manager’s and district manager’s compensation. Consider spot bonuses for a decrease in customer complaints coupled with an effort to address issues with staff. Consider decrease in pay and then termination for complaints that are consistently dismissed or ignored.
Mita Mallick is the head of diversity & inclusion and cross-cultural marketing at Unilever. Under her leadership, Unilever is gender-balanced at manager level and above, and was named the No. 1 company for working mothers by Working Mother Media in 2018. Mallick also cocreated the Cultural Immersions series to increase the cultural competency of marketers, which so far has trained over 5,000 marketers. She believes in the power of diversity to spur creative strategic thinking which can ultimately transform brands.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).