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Inherent Bias in the Black Beauty Aisle?

Walmart, Walgreens and CVS say they'll stop locking away beauty products aimed at Black shoppers — retail experts say the practice was always a bad idea.

Mass retailers say they will stop locking up beauty products designed primarily for Black consumers — but experts say this is only the first step toward making Black beauty shoppers feel valued.

Walmart, CVS and Walgreens all said they will stop locking up beauty products created for Black consumers after images on Twitter showed entire “multicultural” and “ethnic” beauty aisles placed in locked cases. The announcements come as retailers are evaluating their diversity and inclusion practices and policies in the wake of a new civil rights movement, sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests against systemic racism and police brutality against Black people.

The practice of locking up beauty products made for Black consumers has long sparked criticism, and even lawsuits, from customers who view it as discrimination veiled as loss prevention.

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But a new era of corporate accountability at the hands of consumers may be under way.

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“The customer has realized their power in their purchase, their voice,” said Desiree Reid, founder and president of Desiree Reid & Co., an industry advisory firm that specializes in multicultural marketing. “If they continue to make brands accountable, brands will become accountable.”

“They should be embarrassed,” added Reid, of mass retailers who have announced a ban on locking up products for Black consumers. “I’m not going to applaud [the decision to unlock products meant for Black consumers]. I don’t feel it’s worth applauding. [There’s] a lack of empathy and a lack of respect for the customer that drives these decisions.”

The practice of locking up beauty products meant for Black consumers has only added to feelings of disenfranchisement, and has made Black consumers, who overindex in beauty and grooming, more likely to turn away from shopping the drugstore beauty aisle, a category that for some U.S. drug chains in particular has seen years of sales decline.

“Retailers are saying, ‘We don’t see the numbers, women of color don’t do this or they don’t buy that,” said Reid. “But it’s all a cycle. You can’t buy in an environment that’s not engaging you to buy.”

Permanently removing Black beauty products out from under lock and key may only be the first step in making Black beauty shoppers feel that they are wanted as customers in a store — let alone, acknowledging their purchasing power. “It can’t just be that L’Oréal and Revlon are given all the space at the front of the store because they’re the big brands, with brands that serve customers of color out of the way at the back of the store,” said Reid. “There’s underlying biases presented at the store level preventing the customer from having a beauty experience. She’s either bypassing it, or picking something up and getting out.”

Hair products in the “ethnic” or “multicultural” beauty aisle — or, hair care generally designed for Black consumers — are sometimes placed in locked cases at drugstores and other mass chains, often in neighborhoods with a high volume of Black shoppers.

Walmart, which announced last Wednesday that it is banning the practice, said this takes place in “about a dozen” of its 4,700 stores.

A source with close knowledge of mass retailers told WWD that decisions made to place products in locked cases are often determined by data designed to single out the products that are most commonly shoplifted at any given store location.

But others say the issue is far more complex than that, and that the practice of locking up beauty products meant specifically for Black consumers — while the rest of the aisle remains untouched — is rooted in inherent bias, and has resulted only in alienating Black shoppers.

A corporate employee at a mass retailer who spoke to WWD on the condition of anonymity said the decision to lock up products meant for Black consumers is the result of a flawed system that that ends up discriminating against Black shoppers.

The process usually starts with store managers, who are responsible for reporting on what is being stolen, and who is stealing. Reports often single out products aimed at Black consumers, or whole sections of the store frequented by Black shoppers, sources say.

These notes are shared between stores at regional levels and eventually become unofficial company policies determined by middle management — often with higher-ups unaware that the decisions are even being made.

“I know they use metrics, but do they always follow them? No,” said a source. “I’ve been in brown neighborhoods and I’ve seen specific African American products locked up next to products that aren’t locked up. I’d be surprised if someone is stealing these [inexpensive] do-rags and combs, but not the [popular skin-care brand] on the endcap.”