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Colorblind Collaring

Avoid retail racism in your efforts to nab shoplifters and serve customers.

When Amanda Berube started working at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Children's Place, a nationwide children's clothing retail chain based in Secaucus, New Jersey, she was surprised by one aspect of her training: instructions to shadow African American customers in hopes of preventing theft. Berube was also instructed not to give large shopping bags to African American customers, not to tell them about sales and not to invite them to apply for store credit cards. Berube, who is white, received similar instructions when she was promoted to the chain's Watertown, Massachusetts, location. When her complaint to the chain's district manager brought no response, she went to the state.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination sent African American and white "customers" to The Children's Place stores to test what treatment they received and soon collected enough adverse evidence to prepare a lawsuit. In December 2000, the chain agreed to a 22-step settlement. Corrective measures would include hiring a consultant to examine company policies, conducting anti-discrimination training in its Massachusetts stores and donating $50,000 to charity.

The case highlights a bind retailers may find themselves in if they include illegal discrimination in their approaches to identifying potential shoplifters. It's the retail equivalent of the much-maligned practice of racial profiling, where police officers log a disproportionate percentage of traffic stops for African American drivers (who essentially were committing only the misdemeanor of "driving while black." Retailers got away with it for years, but some customers are fighting back. Scattered lawsuits over the past decade have made it especially risky for retailers to discriminate on the basis of race.

In 1995, a jury awarded three African American teens $1 million because a security guard at an Eddie Bauer warehouse sale detained them after falsely accusing one of them of stealing the shirt he was wearing-which he had actually purchased at the sale the day before. Although the jury ruled that the guard did not racially single out the youths, Eddie Bauer got a lot of bad publicity over the alleged discrimination.

"Business owners should be very concerned about not adopting policies that look like retail racism," says Ken Taber, an attorney with the Salans law firm in New York City who handles employment discrimination cases. "It's easy to fall into the trap of using methods to prevent shoplifting that have racist undertones."

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This article was originally published in the May 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Colorblind Collaring.

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