International makeup chain Sephora is implementing sweeping changes in its merchandising, marketing and employee training practices in one of the most public efforts by a major retailer to mitigate the potential for racial profiling and other discriminatory practices at its stores.
The initiativeannounced Wednesday is the culmination of customer and employee surveys, interviews and academic research that have been underway since 2019. But issues around race and inequality took on new urgency following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests and the police killing of George Floyd in May, executives said. The chain also has faced backlash from Black shoppers, including the rapper SZA and comedian Leslie Jones, who have spoken publicly about unfair treatment by its employees.
"We recognize that racial bias affects our stores, just as it affects all retailers," Deborah Yeh, the company's chief marketing officer, said in an interview. "Discrimination and unfair treatment are woven into institutions across America, and retail is not excepted."
Among the changes, Sephora is pledging to double its assortment of Black-owned brands, to 16, by the end of the year and create programs to help entrepreneurs of color. It also will enact new customer-greeting protocols to ensure shoppers are treated consistently, as well as reduce the presence of third-party security guards and police officers in its 500 U.S. stores.
Racism in retail, academics say, has become a persistent problem in an industry that relies heavily on personal interaction. More Black Americans - 24% - said they had been treated unfairly in a store within a 30-day period than at work, restaurants, bars, health-care settings or in police interactions, according to a Gallup poll conducted last summer.
"This has been a problem for many, many years because, let's face it, individuals bring their own biases to work," said Jerome Williams, a business professor at Rutgers University and author of "Race and Retail: Consumption Across the Color Line." "To make progress, there are two areas that are critical: employee training and a strong commitment by upper management to treat all customers fairly, without making assumptions."
Sephora is among a growing number of companies looking for ways to promote diversity and inclusion within their ranks. Apple on Wednesday kicked off a $100 million initiative to combat racial discrimination. The tech giant is pouring $25 million into the Propel Center, an education campus in Detroit aimed at training business leaders from diverse backgrounds, and is creating a developer academy in Atlanta, where it expects to train close to 1,000 students a year in software development for its mobile operating system.
"We are all accountable to the urgent work of building a more just, more equitable world - and these new projects send a clear signal of Apple's enduring commitment," chief executive Tim Cook said in a news release.
Sephora's plan, retail and crisis management experts said, provides a comprehensive — and necessary — road map for the industry: Black shoppers typically spend more on skin care, fragrances and hair care than their White counterparts, amounting to more than $1 billion each year, according to Nielsen.
Rihanna's Fenty Beauty line, for example, has brought in hundreds of millions of dollars and waves of Black shoppers since it debuted at Sephora in 2017. The brand known for inclusivity and makeup that fits a broad range of skin tones generated an estimated $570 million in revenue in 2018, according to Forbes, which values the company at $3 billion. Fenty Beauty is co-owned by Sephora's parent company, the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
Sephora surveyed about 3,000 shoppers and 1,700 employees at its stores and others across the country. Among its findings were that Black shoppers routinely felt sized up and discriminated against for their skin color and ethnicity. Some reported being subject to additional surveillance while browsing or being told they "could not afford an expensive item." Shoppers of color also felt they had to wait longer than their White counterparts to get help from employees.