President of Nordstrom Rack Geevy Thomas flew to St. Louis on Monday to investigate a situation in which three black teenagers were falsely accused of stealing clothing from a store in suburban St. Louis last Thursday, the company told Retail Dive in an email. The customers, who were at the store to browse for prom attire, were followed throughout the store by two employees and reported to the police. The men showed the police their purchases as well as the receipts and were let go, The New York Times reports.
Nordstrom executives heard about the incident later on Thursday. Thomas then called to apologize to the three customers: Mekhi Lee, a freshman at Alabama A&M University, as well as Dirone Taylor and Eric Rogers, both seniors at a local Jesuit high school. On Tuesday, the executives met in the morning with the Nordstrom employees involved and later with the customers and their families.
A Nordstrom spokeswoman did not comment on whether the employees involved were still employed by the department store chain. "We have guidelines that direct our employees to only call the police in emergency situations. Unfortunately, those guidelines weren’t followed," she told Retail Dive in an email. Thomas said in a statement that the company will investigate the actions of the employees and that it is committed to "identifying opportunities to enhance the training and resources we offer them.”
For many people of color, this episode is just the latest symbol of the everyday systemic racial discrimination prevalent in the U.S., where simply entering a store can stoke suspicion.
This event in particular may not come as a surprise for those who live with the deep racial divide in the St. Louis area, which has been the home to massive protests on racial profiling and police brutality following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in 2014. Also this week, Schnucks CEO Todd Schnuck apologized for a racial profiling incident that occurred in a St. Louis store, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Such events have thrown retailers into the spotlight in recent weeks and raised questions about whether their employee training programs are doing enough to counter bias. Last month, two black men were arrested in a Starbucks in Philadelphia after the manager called the police on them, ostensibly for trespassing. Starbucks' solution to the situation is to close its 8,000-plus stores for a one-day racial-bias training program, the curriculum for which is being developed alongside national and local experts.
In shuttering its stores for one day later this month, the company stands to lose millions in revenue ($12 million, by MarketWatch's calculation). Starbucks could have opted to complete the training in off hours but likely wanted to send the message that they are taking the issue seriously enough to stop operations entirely for a few hours, at least. While the cost of ceasing business operations for a day is expensive, unconscious bias may be even more costly, with various studies showing that inclusive businesses are more successful than their homogenous counterparts.
"Unconscious bias training is a pro-active measure for companies dealing with the public," Amy Polefrone, president and CEO of HR Strategy Group, told HR Dive. "Done properly, this should be integrated with a company’s diversity and inclusion strategy and a customer service philosophy."
These types of commonplace incidents, which are not always highlighted in national media, raise the need for racial-bias training. It's so far unclear specifically if or how Nordstrom will implement new training for employees.
In his statement, Thomas said: "We are conducting a thorough internal investigation of the actions taken by our employees and are moving quickly to understand where we have opportunities to improve and take action. We are committed to ensuring our processes and guidelines are well understood by our employees, and identifying opportunities to enhance the training and resources we offer them."