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8 Tips for Creating a Better Customer Experience Decreasing Unconsiouc Bias in Retail— How to Preven

Outside the dressing room, the manager “trained” a new employee on the store's theft procedures in a loud voice. Inside the dressing room, two African American women were trying on clothes. One of the women came out and expressed how upset she was at the insinuation she was stealing. In response, she and her friend were asked to leave the store and then security was called. The shopper turned on her cellphone video camera. The video was posted and went viral with over 250,000 views within a week or two. Clearly this was the last thing the retailer wanted. The manager mishandled the situation, was insensitive and clearly failed at descalation. The result of this true story, significant damage to the companies brand.

Unfortunately, the behavior described is extremely common. At times it is caused by overt racism, but more often than not, it is not. More often it is caused by unconscious bias. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, unconscious bias is an accidental unintended, subtle and completely unconscious choice. It happens automatically, outside of individual control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations. It is influenced by an individual’s background, cultural environment, and personal experiences. Although it can be hard to admit, no one is immune to unconscious bias.

Numerous articles have been written about racial disparities in law enforcement, sports, healthcare, education, the legal system, online dating and many other settings (See comments for links to articles.) This article focuses on unconscious bias and racial profiling in retail settings.

Racial Profiling in Retail

Racial profiling can happen to any minority shopper including the rich and famous. Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama have all experienced racial profiling in retail settings.

According to the Journal of Consumer Culture, 80% of minority consumers experience racial stigma and stereotypes when shopping. Examples of this, include:

  • Being falsely accused of shoplifting based on racial discrimination,

  • Being followed around the store

  • Told the location of the store's sale section unprompted

  • Ignored, made to wait and skipped over for non-minority customers

  • Told the price of expensive clothing items before asking or trying them on.

Why Do Retailers Need to Take Action About Unconscious Bias

As a consultant, my guidance to retailers is addressing unconscious bias needs to be a priority. First off, it is illegal. In addition, incidents like the one described above can be extremely costly. Starbucks store closures to deliever unconscious bias training for all their employees cost $12 million in lost revenue. Other direct costs can add up to millions of dollars and include penalties and legal fees. In addition, the indirect costs can be astronomical including irreparable damage to an organization’s brand. Damage to a retailers brand can be significantly more costly than the potential loss of merchandize the retailer is trying to prevent.

How Do Organizations Change

Although there is no easy fix, change can happen if the senior leaders are willing to assess and make changes. Unconscious bias and racial profiling need to be addressed systematically. Training can be part of the solution, but it should only be a small part of an intervention.

Actions for Retailers:

  1. Create and make sure everyone is aware of clear policies and procedures related to both loss-prevention and racial profiling

  2. Assess biases throughout the workplace’s systems and processes including recruitment, hiring, promotion and compensation rates.

  3. Leverage technology to help eliminate hiring bias; for example, software that scans job descriptions for language that might cause underrepresented candidates from applying

  4. Increase diversity in the senior management team

  5. Hire individuals who are representative of the communities where you serve

  6. Assess for perceptions of inclusivity with employees

  7. Create a customer-centric culture that focuses on taking into consideration differences.

  8. Invest in ongoing training that includes sustaining mechanisms for accountability and reinforcing the learning. Topics could include Unconscious Bias, Loss Prevention, De-escalating stressful situations, Leadership and Customer Service.

* Please note: Diversity and Inclusion training should be voluntary as research has shown that mandatory training can actually increase bias and divisiveness.

What Can You Do

Individual change can happen, but it won't be easy. The only way change can happen is when an individual is:

· Aware

· Motivated

· Has a plan

Three Actions you Can Take as an Individual:

  1. Seeking out people who belong to groups unlike your own.

  2. Observe your own stereotypes and replace them. Look for other reasons for a person’s behavior, rather than stereotypes

  3. Create a plan for minimizing unconscious bias. The plan should include anticipating obstacles that might get in your way and how you might overcome these obstacles.

For those in the retail industry or in any position dealing with the public, there is tremendous value in addressing unconscious bias. Clearly, it mitigates the risk of bias occurring in your organization, but also creates a better workplace and customer experience.


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