In controversy over racial profiling by Barneys, Professor Williams says impact of multicultural purchasing power has not sunk in with some retailers

Thursday, October 31, 2013

A young black engineering student’s claim that he was jailed after his purchase of a $350 belt at Barney’s aroused the suspicions of store employees set off renewed controversy over the prevalence of racial profiling by retailers.  

Rutgers Business School Professor Jerome D. Williams, who has done extensive research on marketplace discrimination, weighs in on the issue and why black consumers – Only last month Nielsen reported African American buying power had reached $1 trillion a year – continue to experience humiliating treatment that has become known as “Shopping while Black.”   

“At a macro level, the impact of the growth in multicultural purchasing power has not fully sunk in with some retailers,” Williams said. “They’ve failed to realize that by subjecting customers to such indignities, this behavior not only has a negative impact on “black” response it also has a negative impact on “green” response – their bottom line.”

“Alienating customers in this way translates into a deterrent for these customers to patronize the store and hence a deterrent for increased sales and profits,” Williams said.

“You often have sales and security workers who exhibit implicit attitudes that reflect the false assumption that some racial/ethnic groups are more prone to shoplifting behavior than others,” Williams said.

“Finally," he said, "you still have some people working in retail environments who just flat out display biased and prejudiced behavior even in our so-called post-racial society.”

As Williams explained to Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington, stereotypes impact who gets arrested for retail theft. Even though some statistics suggest that white women in the 25-to-50 age range engaged in more shoplifting than other demographic groups, retailers justify racial profiling by saying black shoppers are more likely to steal.

Statistics showing that black customers steal more “are not really an indication of who’s shoplifting, it’s a reflection of who’s getting caught,” Williams said. “That’s a reflection of who’s getting watched.”

Williams said Denny’s Restaurant, proves that a culture inside a retail company can be changed.

"There is no question that Barney’s can turn things around. However it takes a commitment from senior management that must filter down to every level of the company,” Williams said. “Mostly importantly, it takes a zero-tolerance policy that enforces sanctions against employees who engage in such behavior.”

“This should be done in conjunction with community groups to demonstrate that the company is acting in good faith,” he said, “and not just attempting to blunt negative publicity.” 

Media Coverage:

The Associated Press: Barneys case stirs talk of ‘Shopping While Black’

The Associated Press story was picked up by dozens of other print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, The Seattle Times, Crain’s New York Business and Bloomberg Business Week.

Latinos Post: ‘Shopping While Black’: Al Sharpton Addresses Racial Discrimination With Barneys CEO in ‘Candid’ Meeting

TAGS: Business Insights Jerome Williams Research Thought Leadership