Artemis Patrick and Deborah Yeh

Three-quarters of consumers say brands fail to show diversity in skin tones, body types and hair textures in their imagery, according to a study initiated by Sephora in 2019.

It’s an issue consumers are increasingly demanding to see change.

“This actually starts their journey of feeling unwelcome before they even have begun shopping,” said Deborah Yeh, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Sephora Americas, in conversation with Jenny B. Fine, executive editor of beauty at WWD and Beauty Inc, alongside Artemis Patrick, executive vice president and chief merchandising officer at Sephora.

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Limited racial diversity at a company — from its marketing department to retail employees — results in exclusionary treatment before shoppers even enter a store, the study found.

“So we’ve made some commitments on our side to achieve better representation here, down to thinking about inclusion in front of and behind the camera,” Yeh said.

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“It only further demonstrates how critical it is that we look at the [diversity, equity and inclusion] across every single touchpoint of our business,” Patrick added. “It’s not just about my team launching a bunch of great Black-owned brands or Deborah’s team having diverse representation in her marketing. It’s a journey that is truly the responsibility of every single person at the company.”

Polling 3,000 U.S. consumers and 1,700 retail sales associates, the national study was conducted to better understand racial bias in stores.

“The idea of racial bias at retail is not new news,” Yeh said. “Consumers of color have been talking about it for years. And our study, what it did is just help quantify it, which shows that two out of five U.S. shoppers say that they’ve experienced poor treatment due to their race or ethnicity.”

This summer, Sephora plans to launch eight more brands founded by people of color.

What was most surprising about the findings for Yeh was the disconnect between how consumers “feel they’re being treated” in retail and how sales associates see those same interactions. Most consumers say their “outward appearance” is what drives the treatment they receive at a U.S. retail store; for people of color, “it’s factors like race and ethnicity,” and for white consumers, it’s “age and attractiveness,” Yeh said. “In contrast, the majority of retail associates see it differently. They say how a customer is behaving in the store is what drives how they interact with those customers.”

Other key learnings indicate that people of color use coping mechanisms to avoid biased experiences that they anticipate having in-store, and when shoppers have a negative visit, they’re unlikely to voice those concerns directly to retailers. Instead, they shop elsewhere.

As a retailer, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is the product placement for this brand equitable, and is it consistent?’

The study also shows the consumer experience can be improved by addressing areas that are important to people of color, like hiring a diverse group of retail sales associates, offering timely in-store assistance and information on new products and offers.

“As you might imagine, at Sephora, we’re taking all of these different opportunity areas and using it to build out a full plan,” Yeh said.

The retailer, which signed Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, has “created a cross-functional task force that is looking at all of these different particular opportunity territories, from product and marketing to the in-store experience to corporate accountability,” she added.

Sephora is training employees in topics like “unconscious bias basics” and “anti-racism,” rethinking how it greets and serves its clients and reviewing its approach to brand marketing.

“As a retailer, you have to ask yourself, ‘Is the product placement for this brand equitable, and is it consistent?’” Patrick said. “I think if you can answer that, it will help guide you. And also, just be aware that not all Black-owned brands are only made for people of color. So as merchants, we have to be in tune of how our consumers shop, but just as important [is], ‘How does the brand see itself positioned?’”

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Sephora — which currently carries eight Black-owned brands — has also reevaluated its brand scouting process, “ensuring [there’s] a mechanism to take in brand pitches from Black founders quickly and systematically,” according to Patrick, as well as its “accelerate program,” an initiative launched five years ago to help beauty brands grow. The revised, “robust” curriculum, created with the assistance of brand founders like Nancy Twine of Briogeo Hair Care and Vicky Tsai of Tatcha, will now “focus solely on BIPOC founders,” she said.

This summer, Sephora plans to launch eight more brands founded by people of color and is “on a mission to double [its] assortment of Black-owned brands by the end of this year,” Patrick continued. “And I would say, in fact, within hair care, it looks like we can hit the 15 percent by the end of this year….It’s not about just launching a whole bunch of new brands, it’s about building an ecosystem that helps create a path for these brands to become successful in the long run.”

“Part of the reason why we do this work and why we sponsored a national study is that we do want corporations and other brands and retailers to join us in this work,” Yeh added. “Inclusion isn’t a situation where there are winners and losers. Here, we actually can all be in this together.”

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