Byline: Carol Emert

WASHINGTON — Rick Fersch, president of Eddie Bauer, came to Washington late last week trying to quell a growing furor over the alleged mistreatment of an African-American shopper in a local store.
The shopper, Alonzo Jackson, 16, was reportedly told by a temporary part-time security guard to remove an Eddie Bauer shirt he was wearing while visiting a warehouse store in Prince Georges County, Md., on Oct. 20. Jackson returned with the receipt and was given back the shirt, which he had purchased the day before, according to Jackson’s lawyer.
Fersch stressed, “This is an incident; it is absolutely opposed to what we stand for.” He came to meet with community leaders to discuss ideas for making amends.
Fersch told WWD that he and the company have always been against discrimination, but this incident has convinced him to speak out publicly.
“I really believe if some of us take a more pro-active stand, we can help wipe out some of this hate out there,” he said. “Eddie Bauer will do whatever community leaders agree is the best approach.”
This could include a public education campaign, public lectures and high school employment programs.
On Nov. 20, Fersch sent a letter of apology to Jackson, and last week the company donated 550 warm-weather garments to local community shelters to show its contrition, a spokeswoman for the retailer said.
As a result of this incident, Fersch said, all Eddie Bauer employees, permanent and temporary, will be required to sign a document acknowledging that they are aware that their employment will be terminated if they fail to show respect to customers or engage in any discriminatory behavior on the job.
Lawyers for Jackson and a friend who accompanied him on the shopping trip, Rasheed Plummer, 17, have been unable to reach a financial settlement with Eddie Bauer and are planning to file a civil rights suit against the company next week, according to Donald M. Temple, the lead attorney for the teenagers. Plummer also received a letter of apology from Fersch.
Fersch said, “We’ll do whatever we can for a fair resolution,” but neither he nor other Eddie Bauer officials would comment further on the lawsuit.
A source, however, said the attorney is seeking $1 million for Jackson and $500,000 for Plummer.
Fersch met Thursday and Friday with members of the Washington bureau of the NAACP and other African-American community leaders, as well as with local Eddie Bauer officials.
Michael Inkes, Eddie Bauer’s senior vice president for community relations, who also attended the meeting, said it was “a great meeting” but declined to comment further.
“All ideas are being entertained here,” said Fersch. “Now we must step back and with the community leaders do a well-thought-out game plan and carry that out.”
He said he hopes a plan of action will be developed within two weeks.
Wade Henderson, director of the local NAACP bureau, said at a press conference Friday that his organization wants Eddie Bauer to spearhead a national publicity campaign against racism, and to take the lead in an effort to educate the industry about racism at retail. The NAACP is not involved in the lawsuit planned by Jackson and Plummer, he said.
Henderson said his organization wants to “use the incident that occurred at Eddie Bauer to bring attention to this issue.” He said blacks are routinely discriminated against by retailers, who use extra surveillance on them due to a stereotypical belief that they are likely to be shoplifters.
Leroy Warren, a national board member of the NAACP, said retailers discriminate in other ways as well, such as requiring many forms of identification from African-Americans who wish to write checks.
NAACP chapters around the country routinely receive complaints about such discrimination, and since this incident, there have been several other complaints about Eddie Bauer as well as about other retailers, Henderson said.
“Eddie Bauer has policies and procedures, but not all employees abide by those policies and procedures….There is an enforcement problem,” he said. Henderson said he asked Eddie Bauer for a copy of its policy regarding shopper surveillance.
The NAACP is also “investigating vigorously and fully” the security guard involved in the incident, Henderson said. The guard, who is white, is an off-duty Prince George’s County policeman who was moonlighting at the store, a temporary location that was open only for a warehouse sale, according to Temple and the NAACP. None of the staffers there was a regular Eddie Bauer employee, a company spokeswoman said. Bauer would not reveal the guard’s name.
The retailer is conducting its own investigation and is cooperating with the Prince George’s County police, which is conducting a separate investigation, according to Fersch.
Henderson said there was no discussion of a boycott or other anti-Eddie Bauer actions at the Friday meeting. He called the meeting “a good first step,” adding, “We shared information on an issue that we both agreed was important, and we agreed to meet again.”
No further meetings have been scheduled.

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