Sephora racial bias in retail study

A Sephora-commissioned study illustrates the domino effect of racial bias in U.S. retail.

“The Racial Bias in Retail Study” is a compilation of research conducted over the course of a year by Kelton Global and LRW in partnership with retail racism experts Dr. Cassi Pittman Claytor, Dr. David Crockett, Whitney Dunlap-Fowler and Dr. Patricia Raspberry. It draws both from academic literature and interviews with shoppers and retail employees.

Racial bias and unfair treatment start “even before a shopper walks into a store” and continue throughout the shopping journey, the study states. It lists this finding as the first of five “truths about bias and BIPOC shoppers” in U.S. retail.

The release of Sephora’s study, commissioned in 2019, comes nearly eight months after the dawning of a social justice movement in which consumers took companies to task over a racial transparency deficit. Though encounters with racism and bias are often anecdotal, Sephora’s study is one of a growing number of reports that aim to quantify the depths of bias in retail.

In an interview with WWD, Sephora’s chief marketing officer Deborah Yeh said the impetus to commission the report came when the retailer launched its We Belong to Something Beautiful campaign, meant to be “an external articulation of [Sephora’s] values in diversity, equity and inclusion” to its employees and customers.

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“Bias shows up in all institutions, and the retail experience across the broader industry, Sephora included, is not always inclusive to all,” Yeh said. “We felt like we needed to understand the challenge from the inside out and that we were in a strong position to influence positive changes, both within our organization and the retail industry at large.”

The “Racial Bias in Retail” study uncovers perception disparities between BIPOC shoppers and retail employees, while addressing a wide-ranging list of factors at play. It is meant to encourage retailer-to-retailer discussions and partnerships, Yeh said, noting that outdoor recreation retailer REI contributed input.

Two in five retail shoppers reported personally experiencing unfair treatment based on their race or complexion, the study says. One in five retail employees reported personally experiencing unfair treatment at work, and one in three retail employees — and 37 percent of Black employees — said they have contemplated quitting after experiencing racial bias and unfair treatment.

Exclusionary marketing and merchandising practices, such as isolating products for people of color, contribute to 65 percent of retail shoppers believing stores do not deliver an equally distributed assortment of products. That percentage is particularly true for mass, hardware, beauty and outdoor recreation retailers.

The study highlights an underlying gap between how shoppers and retail employees perceive in-store experiences: Black shoppers are three times more likely than white shoppers to feel judged for their ethnicity and complexion, yet 60 percent of retail employees cite shoppers’ behavioral attributes — rather than physical ones — when deciding how to approach or interact with them.

Biased or unfair treatment typically occurs while shoppers are browsing, and shoppers sometimes compensate for mistreatment by making behavioral changes like shopping online, dressing differently, adjusting body language and leaving purses or bags at home to avoid theft accusations, the report says.

Despite experiencing unfair treatment in-store, 70 percent of retail shoppers do not address this directly with the retailer, the report finds. One way to improve upon these numbers, said George-Axelle Broussillon Matschinga, vice president of diversity and inclusion for Sephora U.S., is to craft an exit experience that encourages shoppers to share their feedback before they leave the store.

“We’ve decided to implement new feedback mechanisms as clients exit the stores to provide more opportunities and touchpoints for clients to provide feedback,” Broussillon Matschinga said. “Additionally, we will be deploying an in-store dashboard that will help us not only capture analytics on client service, but that will be helpful to measure the impact of our training and compliance and other types of changes.”

While retail employees recognize the importance of servicing diverse shopper needs, 35 percent expressed concern over their store lacking the proper training to help them serve shoppers of different races, the report says. Nearly 60 percent of retail employees expressed a desire for training on how to service a diverse set of shopper needs, but only 53 percent have received DEI training. Even less — 40 percent — have received unconscious bias training.

Three in five employees who did receive trainings believed them to be “very, if not extremely, successful in reducing unfair treatment in their store,” the study says.

Sephora’s report ends with a preliminary action plan meant to address how racial bias manifests within the retailer’s doors. One of the action items involves doubling Sephora’s assortment of Black-owned brands by the end of 2021.

Sephora, which took Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, currently stocks eight Black-owned brands — all of which it now features in a dedicated tab on its website.

“[With] the Accelerate program, which has been around for five years, we completely pivoted to be focused on BIPOC founders,” said Artemis Patrick, executive vice president, global chief merchandising officer. “We are close to announcing the eight brands that have been chosen for that program, and we will look to launch those brands later in the year.”

Patrick said Sephora has a “massive internal task force” of marketers and merchants whose job it is to take “a holistic approach” to onboarding more Black-owned beauty brands.

Other action items listed in the report include Sephora reducing the presence of third-party security vendors in favor of in-house Loss Prevention specialists; expanding recruitment and career advancement efforts for employees of color; establishing an inclusivity-based performance metric, and automatic and immediate termination of employees who engage in profiling, discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

Citing its commitment to Sharon Chuter’s Pull Up For Change campaign, Sephora also plans to share biannual progress reports on the diversity of its workforce.

“Transparency and accountability are key to this effort,” Yeh said. “When we have conversations with our clients of color, their reaction is, ‘Of course, bias and unfair treatment happens at retail.’ This is not a secret, but to be able to measure it, articulate the drivers of the challenges, and then prioritize action plans are new elements that the study is bringing to the table.”

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