Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles

Retailers are wading into the national conversation on race — and just as it hits a fever pitch. 

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officer last week pushed long-simmering frustration over racism beyond the boiling point, but retailers are finding common cause with the protesters stepping out to say enough is enough.

“We are a community in pain,” said Brian Cornell, chairman and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis-based Target Corp. “That pain is not unique to the Twin Cities — it extends across America. The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts. As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing. And as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.”

The Target Lake Street store in its hometown was looted and heavily damaged, but the ceo said the retailer is sending truckloads of first aid equipment and other essentials to areas to make sure areas hit hardest by demonstrations get needed supplies. Associates at the Lake Street store are being given their full pay “in the coming weeks” and access to other opportunities. 

Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, praised Target’s reaction, but noted that weighing in on such an issue can make for a touchy bit of corporate communication.

“You’ve got to be super careful on this,” Kahn said. “In this polarized world, they are asking people to show their values. If your values aren’t authentic there’s going to be some backlash.”  

She said companies need to weigh in in a way that fits with their corporate values.

And some of the corporate voices speaking up, such as Levi Strauss & Co., are accustomed to jumping into emotionally charged issues. 

Chip Bergh, Levi’s president and ceo, sent a message under the heading: “We Stand With the Black Community.”

“America is burning because of the deep-rooted racism that is our nation’s most shameful legacy,” Bergh said. “The murder of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers was brutal and senseless, as were the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and so many others before them. I am heartbroken for those individuals and the families and communities they were taken from. They deserved better. We have to be better.

“The protests around the country are a reflection of generations of pain, suffering, anger and fear that Americans of color have been living with for far too long,” Bergh said. “Martin Luther King Jr. once said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard.’ We need to listen. And, just as importantly, we need to act.”

Bergh acknowledged that some of the action needed requires introspection — and a kind of meditation on Levi’s “core values of empathy, integrity and courage.”

“We at LS&Co. are far from perfect,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do internally and externally to live up to the ideals we cherish as a company. That includes continuing to listen to Black employees when they speak about their experience at our offices, with our business and in our country.” 

Levi’s is also giving two $100,000 grants, one to Live Free, which works with marginalized communities, and the other to the American Civil Liberties Union.

At Nordstrom Inc., Pete Nordstrom, president, stores, and  Erik Nordstrom, ceo, sent an open letter to employees, adding: “The issue of race and the experiences of too many people of color cannot be ignored. We owe it to our employees, our customers and our communities to be very clear in condemning these acts of violence.”

“We need change,” the Nordstroms said. “As a company, we know we have the opportunity to make things better, which is why over the past several years we’ve amplified our efforts when it comes to diversity, inclusion and belonging at Nordstrom. It begins not only by speaking out, but by listening. Listening to our employees, customers and neighbors as they share what it’s like to be a person of color in our country today.”

The killing of Floyd, the protests and then violence — all while the nation is still just tentatively getting back on its feet from the coronavirus shutdown — has brought out many speaking forcefully, connecting the dots in perhaps language too stark to come from the standard corporate playbook.  

“This should never have happened, period, much less again,” said Steve Rendle, chairman, president and ceo of Vans and The North Face parent VF Corp. “But, if we’re honest, we know it likely will. We know this story all too well because it’s repeated with frustrating regularity, not only in the U.S. but all over the world. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s unacceptable.

“I can’t help but draw comparisons between it and the global pandemic we’re currently facing,” Rendle said. “Why? Because both have been caused by a virus. The virus behind our global shutdown has a formal name: COVID-19. The virus that caused the death of George Floyd and many other people of color also has a formal name. It’s called racism. Unfortunately, our world only seems interested in finding a cure for one of these diseases.”

Expect to hear more from VF.

“Unlike the coronavirus, we aren’t going to stay in our homes or hide from the racism virus,” the ceo said. “We’re going to continue to fight it, but do so through constructive and collaborative efforts, not destructive and violent protests.…Over the coming weeks, you will see VF and our brands speak out against racism and engage both our associates and external audiences in positive, productive dialogue.”