Some claims of retail racism involve not shoplifting policies, but perceived differences in customer treatment. William F. Causey, an attorney with Nixon Peabody LLP in Washington, DC, who represents retail chains, tells of a case he handled in which an African American woman bought a pair of sunglasses and found they were scratched. She tried to return them to the store but wasn't allowed to because she had no receipt. She asked a white friend to return them for her, and a different sales rep allowed the exchange without the receipt. The customer presumed the reasons were racist and filed a lawsuit. "We settled the case," Causey says. "The store is to train employees on diversity sensitivity, our law firm will review its policies on returns to make sure there's no discrimination, and [the store] provided a small monetary payment and new sunglasses."
Causey advises retailers to examine their policies and procedures to make sure customers are treated consistently. "The way stores get into trouble is treating each incident as an isolated event and not seeing the pattern," he says. "Make sure your policies are consistent with the law, and make sure employees understand them." In addition, Causey advises retailers to provide diversity and anti-discrimination training for all employees. Such training typically includes scenarios on videotape for employees to comment on. "Employees need to treat all customers the same and know how to deal with problems when they arise," he says. The cost of training is far less than the cost of a lawsuit.
To combat shoplifting, Taber advises moving to an electronic anti-theft system with sensors that must be deactivated at the checkout lane. "These are colorblind," he says. That can eliminate altogether the need for following customers around. Greeting customers as they arrive and making eye contact can also be strong deterrents to shoplifters-while making honest customers feel they're getting service.
Making sure you don't discriminate against customers is just good business, Taber says, especially given how many customers you can lose over bad publicity. "Any retailer would have to have a suicidal bent to deliberately alienate the African American community."
Steven C. Bahls, dean of Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, teaches entrepreneurship law. Freelance writer Jane Easter Bahls specializes in business and legal topics.