By Shelley E. Kohan | Link to article
A new charter was announced by Sephora and Open to All, a nonprofit coalition of over 200 members, to mitigate racial bias in retail and create more welcoming environments for shoppers and employees. The goal of the charter is to bring retailers together to implement actions and create best practices that can address the issues prevalent in the shopping journey for many BIPOC customers and workers.
Racial bias in retail study
In 2019, Sephora commissioned a first-of-its-kind study on the state of racial bias in the retail sector and the study findings were shared across all retailers. In my interview with Jean-Andre Rougeot, CEO of Sephora, he discussed how the retail experience is a challenge for many customers due to racial bias, and when he listened to actual shoppers in the focus groups as part of the study, it was very emotional. “I remember one Black woman was saying how she had to be a different person when she went shopping, she had to dress and behave differently. No one should ever have to feel this way, every consumer should be comfortable walking into any store and shopping,” said Rougeot. The focus group stories were just heartbreaking and Sephora wanted to learn from these experiences along with the commissioned research from the experts.
Rougeot stated, “This type of behavior should not happen in America or any country, and we want to do something about it both internally and from an industry perspective.” Sephora’s goal was to share the results of the study and formulate action items to improve the industry in terms of creating more welcoming environments for shoppers and employees.
When Terry Roberts, chief inclusion and diversity officer of American Eagle Outfitters, read the Racial Bias in Retail Study commissioned by Sephora, he was dismayed to hear about how a particular BIPOC customer literally comes up with a game plan to go shopping. “When I read about shoppers making a plan to go shopping so they feel more welcome, it was really disappointing. I then realized that I do the same thing, dress a certain way so sales associates treat me differently. I don’t do that anymore.”
Roberts talked about how there is a divergent perception of how customers feel when shopping and about the retail workers’ perception of the service provided. What AEO and other retailers can do is close the gap between the perceived service and the actual service delivered. “Through this charter, AEO wants to work both sides of the equation and create an environment where shoppers feel welcomed and empowered in a trusted environment with retail workers.”
Joanne Crevoiserat, CEO of Tapestry (parent company of Coach, Kate Spade, and Stuart Weitzman), said, “There has never been a more urgent time for us to demonstrate our commitment to inclusivity, be it the political landscape, customer expectations, or simply our belief in protecting equality and equity for all.” Crevosierat discussed how Open to All’s mission closely aligns with Tapestry’s core values, one of which is to embrace difference by design. “We believe we do our best work when we are able to champion diversity at all levels of our organization and build a culture where all of our employees are empowered to bring their whole, authentic selves to work and our customers always feel welcome.” Tapestry’s goal, much like the goal of Open to All, is to build a truly inclusive environment where people from all backgrounds, perspectives and experiences can thrive.
The barriers to creating change
Rougeot discusses that there are really two facets that should be considered when addressing racial bias in retail. Making consumers feel uncomfortable in stores is obviously wrong from an ethical perspective but it also makes no sense from a business perspective in the U.S. since the diversity of consumers in the U.S. market is so broad.
“At Sephora, we are lucky to have a very impassioned team that works on creating opportunities of inclusivity every day across all teams.” Every employee in the company has a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) objective on their review and while it varies by position, everyone gets it and workers now come up with very creative ways to add goals that further our DEI mission.”
Even before the Open to All charter, Sephora was a leader in highlighting the issue of systematic racism in retail, with its programs like the 15% Pledge and Sephora Accelerate. “Through the Open to All Mitigate Racial Bias in Retail Charter, we can make real progress as more retailers get on the train; we can continue allocating resources and addressing the issue.” Rougeot believes that racial bias in retail is a fundamental issue for the future of the industry.
Roberts says, “Bias is not good for business and I have a hard time thinking of any retailer today that wants to foster this type of environment.” Employees spend a lot of time at work and AEO counteracts the broader environment by bringing awareness to unconscious bias through daily conversations and training and wants to be a part of the bigger picture in terms of making progress in the industry.
Crevoiserat adds that because of the unconscious nature of racial bias and microaggressions in retail environments, many of these actions are underreported, hard to prove and often not validated. “At Tapestry, we’ve focused on mitigating potential bias through store leadership training, tools and resources to increase awareness and manager capabilities.”
How it all came together
Calla Rongerude, Director of Open to All, discussed how the company is a national nonprofit nondiscrimination program that promotes the notion that everyone should be welcome regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, immigration status, religion, or disability. The goal of Open to All is to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives by partnering the nonprofit with the private sectors to create positive change.
The Mitigate Racial Bias in Retail Charter pledges to design and implement actions that reduce racial bias in the shopper experience and foster inclusive shopping experiences for all, regardless of race or ethnicity; it stresses that retailers should be accountable to their shoppers, their employees, and the industry they represent; they should work together to drive change across the U.S. retail industry.
Rongerude said, “Last year, we debuted our Inclusive Retail initiative, working with our retail partners to create resources, training materials, and sample policies to ensure everyone is welcome. Addressing racial bias in retail is a natural progression of our Inclusive Retail work. We feel a duty to act and develop a set of tools we can use to collaborate with retailers, supporters, and nonprofit partners nationwide and do the work to ensure a welcoming culture for all shoppers regardless of their race.”
Collaboration creates greater action
The charter already has major retailers that have signed up to be part of the change alongside Sephora including American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), Coach, Tapestry, Levi’s, Kate Spade, Dick’s, Ben & Jerry’s, H&M, and Zara’s.
AEO has been at the forefront of inclusivity and would be considered one of the pioneers in the space of access for all. In my interview with Roberts, he discussed the importance of the Open to All charter because it brings all communities together for the greater good of the industry. “At AEO, we have these customers and we want them to come into the stores and be their authentic selves; it’s something that we as a company always talk about.”
Roberts also discussed how the Open to All organization is great to work with and they are focusing on the right things. “We are very hopeful that access for everyone becomes an industry-wide initiative; The notion that everyone gets to participate including shoppers, customers and employees is very important.”
Roberts explained that every brand should be true to itself regarding its own values and mission, but the power of all of these brands coming together, even competitors, creates a larger benefit to the industry. “ Inclusivity should become more normal across all retailers, and while this has been a competitive advantage for AEO, we really want this to be the norm for all shoppers and employees.”
Crevoiserat discussed how some issues are far too big for one company to tackle alone. In this instance, the industry can collaborate to ensure it builds an equitable, inclusive, and diverse world. “Together, we have a greater chance of driving real, measurable change.” Crevoiserat talked about how by partnering with other brands to collectively support and sign the “Mitigate Racial Bias in Retail” charter, Tapestry is sending a message that it will not stand for discrimination. “Together, we are standing up for the rights of our customers, our employees and our partners.”
Best practices shared among retailers
The charter includes the development of resources and education including training materials, and Rougeot discussed that while Sephora has exceptional training programs, its goal is to participate in the charter from a humble perspective. “The charter starts with acknowledging that we have a problem and it is not a competitive story, it is about sharing our training but also seeing how other retailers approach the issue.” There is a collective power when retailers pull together and the industry can really make a difference by working together.
Holding the retail industry accountable
According to Rongerude, Open to All will host monthly meetings for all Charter supporters, with guest speakers presenting on a wide array of topics. “Thanks to the generosity of one of our corporate partners, we will open-source a two-hour anti-racism training developed by Mattingly Solutions, a DEI consulting firm focused on workplace inclusion at the end of May. That will be available to all companies that sign the Charter.”
Tapestry plans to hold itself accountable. Crevoiserat said that part of this plan is exploring ways to drive systematic change by increasing opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds at all levels of their career, from the talent pipeline to internal opportunities for mobility, to pathways to senior leadership roles. Tapestry is a founding member of Fashion Institute of Technology’s Social Justice Center, which is focused on advancing equity and opportunity in the fashion industry to effect real and lasting change. Earlier this month, Tapestry appointed David L. Casey as chief inclusion and social impact officer, a newly created position that reflects the purpose-led, people-centered philosophy. In addition, Crevoiserat said, “It advances the ongoing commitment to building Tapestry’s inclusive culture and creating a company that truly reflects the diversity of its customers, its employees, and the communities it serves.”
When asked about the success of the charter five years down the road, companies responded with the hope of great change. Here’s what some of them said:
- Rongerude (Open to All): “Five years from now, I hope that most or all of the retail industry will be actively participating in this work. And it is my greatest hope that BIPOC shoppers feel welcome and respected every time they shop.”
- Roberts (AEO): “Success would be when everybody’s included, there are no preconceived notions and beautiful is everyone. By doing more with best practices from others, more training and working on the charter together, we can pay it forward. There is no ego here.”
- Crevoiserat (Tapestry): “We feel it is critically important for Tapestry to have continued access to quantitative and qualitative data that will enable companies like ours to drive focused efforts on specific areas of opportunity and measure progress. Sephora’s Racial Bias in Retail study is one example of data that drives accountability and provides a burning platform to address problem areas. Our consumers and our people will tell us if we are succeeding.”
- Sephora’s continued focus on DEI initiatives has made a strong impression on customers. Rougeot said, “Consumers are telling us they love the product diversity in the store and we view this as a marathon and not a sprint. We need to work hard and not let up because if you relax, it can go backwards.”