What Footwear Retailers Can Learn From Sephora’s Decision to Shut Stores for Diversity Training

Sephora shoppers on the hunt for a new lipstick or eyeshadow palette will have to look elsewhere on Wednesday: The cosmetics chain is closing all 400 of its U.S. stores — along with its distribution centers and corporate offices — on June 5 to conduct diversity training for its staff.

The decision was prompted by an April 30 tweet from the R&B singer SZA accusing an employee at the retailer’s Calabasas, Calif., location of racial profiling.

“Lmao Sandy Sephora location 614 Calabasas called security to make sure I wasn’t stealing. We had a long talk. U have a blessed day Sandy,” SZA tweeted.

The retailer responded to the singer the following day saying, “You are a part of the Sephora family, and we are committed to ensuring every member of our community feels welcome and included at our stores.”

It followed that up with an email blast and Facebook post announcing its “We Belong to Something Beautiful” campaign, a “manifesto that affirms [Sephora’s] commitment to creating the most inclusive and diverse beauty community, and to being a place where everyone feels welcome.”

Wednesday’s closures will allow the company’s staff to participate in “inclusion workshops,” which Sephora says have been in the planning stages for several months. The move echoes Starbucks’ decision last year to close more than 8,000 U.S. stores for a day of diversity training, which came in the wake of an incident in which an employee called the police on two black men who sat down at a table without ordering anything. Videos shared on social media showed the men — who were waiting for a business meeting to start — being handcuffed and escorted out of the location, prompting widespread outcry.

Fashion retailers have a long history of similar problems. Barneys New York was famously forced to pay out more than $500,000 in response to a 2013 lawsuit accusing the chain of racial profiling after a black customer was apprehended and detained in a holding cell after buying a $349 Salvatore Ferragamo belt. In November, Lord & Taylor agreed to pay $100,000 to resolve an investigation into racial profiling by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office after a complaint accused the retailer of “[perpetuating] a climate of racial and ethnic bias resulting in, among other things, the disproportionate targeting of black and Hispanic customers for surveillance and apprehension.” Nordstrom Rack, Macy’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Old Navy and Zara have also all had alleged incidents of racial targeting in the past, the consequences of which have ranged from denial to six-figure fines.

The high-profile action on the part of Sephora and Starbucks, though, shows that consumers today are demanding more than a simple apology or a payout on the part of retailers.

What’s more, millennials and Generation Z have largely been responsible for forcing companies to engage in more social responsibility and activism — often voicing their intent to support only those companies that are on their side of certain political and civic issues.

In fact, the 2017 Earned Brand report from public relations firm Edelman found that 60 percent of millennials and 53 percent of Gen Z shop based on their beliefs.

“They will buy your brand, switch from it, avoid it and — at the extreme — boycott it over your stance on a controversial or social issue,” the report noted.

While closing stores for a day is a bold — and expensive — move on Sephora’s part, it signals a shift toward facing the industry’s long-entrenched problems head-on rather than sweeping them under the rug.

Of course, customer reaction on social media has so far been mixed, with some applauding Sephora’s efforts and others calling the inclusion workshops a “PR stunt.” Nevertheless, some consumers have used the opportunity to ask the company to address other forms of bias, including ageism and ableism.

Will the program actually work? As many critics pointed out in the wake of Starbucks’ diversity push, research published in the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere indicates that one-time training sessions do little to correct unconscious bias in the long term. If retailers want to successfully address racism and promote diversity, these messages arguably have to be carried on throughout the organization on a day-to-day basis long after any publicity around a high-profile incident has died down.

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