UPDATE: November 19, 2018: In an emailed statement Lord & Taylor told Retail Dive: "We take these allegations seriously and regret if any customer ever felt unwelcome in our stores. We maintain and enforce long-standing and company-wide policies that promote diversity and inclusion, reflecting our high standards. While we deny any wrongdoing whatsoever, we chose to engage cooperatively with the Attorney General’s Office and appreciate that they recognized our willingness to enhance our practices. Delivering a positive experience for our customers remains our foremost priority. This outcome will further benefit our customers and associates. We look forward to working with a third-party consultant to build upon our existing policies and help refresh our training programs."
- Lord & Taylor has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle an investigation by the Massachusetts attorney general into racial discrimination, the state agency said on Tuesday.
- The department store, owned by Hudson's Bay Co., will also hire a consultant to review and address its shoplifting prevention procedures and train staff, according to a press release from Attorney General Maura Healey's office.
- Healey investigated all four Lord & Taylor stores in the state — in Boston, Braintree, Burlington and Natick — after concerns arose that its theft prevention policies "perpetuated a climate of racial and ethnic bias resulting in, among other things, the disproportionate targeting of black and Hispanic customers for surveillance and apprehension." Lord & Taylor fully cooperated with the office's Civil Rights Division, according to the release.
As a result of this investigation, Lord & Taylor is taking "meaningful steps" to prevent racial profiling, Healey said in a statement, expressing hope that other retailers would follow suit.
"Far too often, shoppers are unfairly viewed as suspicious or not belonging, simply because of their race or ethnicity," she said. "This takes a toll on individuals and broader communities, even when it is the result of unconscious bias, and it is our collective responsibility to address it."
Several civil rights advocates hailed the agreement. It shows that "retailers can meaningfully address racial discrimination and challenges in our society," according to a statement from Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, Executive Director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.
In fact, stores are part of the public sphere, and retailers' have an obligation to ensure that any person who enters "can have an experience free from profiling or discrimination," a spokesperson for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which worked with Starbucks after the racially charged incident at one of its locations, told Retail Dive in an email. "As we have seen this past year, this form of discrimination continues to be far too common — including in restaurants, stores, golf courses and other public spaces."
Lord & Taylor has company as it tries to reduce racial biases in how employees police their stores. Earlier this year, a Nordstrom executive flew to St. Louis to do damage control after three black teenagers were followed by Nordstrom employees and falsely accused of shoplifting. Starbucks also shut down its stores for several hours to conduct racial-bias training after two black men who were waiting for a friend were arrested after Starbucks employees called police.
The fact that the top lawyer of Massachusetts saw fit to look into potentially discriminatory policies at Lord & Taylor is notable, and something that all retailers should take note of, according to I. India Thusi, assistant professor of law at California Western School of Law.
"Race is a difficult topic for people regardless of who they are," she told Retail Dive in an interview. "Middle level managers might have difficulty coming out and saying it — but now more than ever it's really important that we do come out and say it. An inability to talk about race and people's differences is getting in the way — if you're a retailer your customers come into this environment and your employees work in this environment."
Training staff to recognize their own potential for "implicit bias," an unconscious attitude that could lead to unfairly single out a customer based on their race, is helpful, she said. But retailers must also forge explicit policies to prevent unfair treatment, and too many don't have such procedures, she also said.
"I think what's more helpful and probably more impactful, to prevent those biases, is to have those policies, reviewing the policies that a retailer has and how are the policies are drafted," she said. "Are you going to ask for receipts? If you are, ask that of everyone or ask it of no one. It's helpful to frame it in terms of commitment to preventing racial biases and promoting equal experiences for your customers and to create a culture where racial discrimination isn't tolerated."