In conjunction with the release of a year-long research study on racial bias in retail, commissioned by Sephora, the beauty retailer on Wednesday announced an action plan for handling racial bias in its stores that spans marketing and merchandising, in-store experience and operations, and talent and inclusivity in the workplace.
On the marketing and merchandising side, the beauty retailer announced a number of steps that build upon its signing of the 15 Percent Pledge over the summer. Among them, Sephora will establish new marketing production guidelines to increase diversity in campaigns, feature and advertise Black-owned brands on a specific tab on the website, double its assortment of Black-owned brands by the end of 2021 and focus its accelerator program on BIPOC-owned brands.
According to the study, three in five retail shoppers have experienced discriminatory treatment, two in five have personally experienced unfair treatment on the basis of their race or skin color, and three in five retail employees have witnessed bias at work. The vast majority of shoppers (74%) said they felt marketing doesn't showcase diverse skin tones, body types and hair textures, especially across department stores (72%), beauty (70%), apparel (69%), and mass merchants (67%).
Assortment is also problematic for many. The majority of shoppers in the report (65%) said stores fail to deliver an equally distributed assortment of products for different shoppers' needs, especially across mass merchants (63%), hardware (62%), beauty (60%), and outdoor/recreation (60%).
"When we think about racial bias and unfair treatment, it operates on multiple levels across the consumer journey," Cassi Pittman Claytor, author of Black Privilege and the Climo Junior Professor in the Department of Sociology at Case Western Reserve University, said in a briefing on the report. Pittman Claytor was one of two academic partners working with Sephora on the study. "From the very start when people even think about things that they want to buy, to actually making a purchase, using a good — every step along the consumer journey, retail bias, racism is evident."
Sephora is also making changes to how it runs stores to try and eliminate racial bias, including creating new training modules for its store associates, providing shoppers new channels to give feedback, implementing a new greeting system, and making changes to how the beauty retailer handles loss prevention that involve employing fewer third-party security vendors and leaving loss prevention out of store associates' responsibilities.
The changes come as a direct result of some of the reports findings around the in-store experience for people of color. According to the study, BIPOC shoppers have personally experienced higher rates of unfair treatment on the basis of their race or skin color than White shoppers, while White shoppers are more likely to cite factors like age and attractiveness as the basis of treatment they receive.
Almost 80% of retail shoppers struggle to find associates who look like them and 82% struggle to find associates familiar with their needs, according to the report. And when they do experience unfair treatment or a negative shopping experience, the majority of BIPOC shoppers do not voice concerns directly to retailers, impacting retailers' ability to receive and act upon feedback.
"Other folks get to just be. They get to walk into the store and not care about what they're wearing, who's looking at them, and so forth," April Reign, #OscarsSoWhite creator and advocate, said. "And Black people and people of color very often don't have that luxury. We're constantly scanning the terrain, understanding the situation and context. And that places a huge burden on us. It wears us down."
In fact, the study found that some shoppers steer clear of stores altogether to avoid unfair treatment, or adopt other coping mechanisms like not using samples or adjusting their body language to avoid discrimination.
"Despite the experiences retail shoppers report, three in five (60%) retail employees surveyed more often cite shoppers' behavioral attributes rather than physical attributes when determining how to approach or interact with shoppers, underscoring significant disconnect between how shoppers and employees interpret interactions in U.S. retail," the report found.
That led to Sephora's final category of changes to address racial bias, which revolves around employee training and feedback. The retailer will broaden recruitment and career advancement efforts for people of color, include inclusivity-based metrics in employee reviews, update its zero-tolerance policy to include offenses like profiling, provide unconscious bias training for all new hires and share progress on leadership representation biannually.
To that last point, Sephora plans to double the representation of Black leaders to mirror the current share of Black employees (14%), Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Deborah Yeh said. According to the report, employees also recognize that there are problems with how they serve customers.
Just over half of retail employees said their store fails to help shoppers find a store associate familiar with their race and unique needs, while 35% said their store lacks proper training on helping customers of different races. Almost 60% of respondents want training on how to serve a more diverse set of customers and 61% of employees who have received training on unconscious bias and diversity and inclusion said it was very or extremely successful in reducing unfair treatment. A little over half (53%) had received DEI training and 40% had received unconscious bias training.
"Our academic partners have reinforced with us the importance of measuring, measuring, measuring," Yeh said. "We know that change is going to take time, which is why continuing to monitor the impact of our actions is going to be critical."
In addition to making its own action plan, the beauty retailer is releasing the findings of its study in the hopes that other retailers can use it to develop their own. Yeh said the retailer was working with organizations like RILA and Diversity Best Practices to spread the findings to retail leaders interested in them.
"It behooves Sephora and the whole industry to take this seriously, and work towards a solution. We all have work to do," Yeh said. "So my hope here is that other retailers will use the findings in the study to inform their own actions."