Consumers and store employees may be experiencing interactions in very different ways.

As the holiday shopping season approaches Black Friday, an academic study that reflects on the impact of racism in retail stores today and written by Meirav Furth-Matzkin, Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA, is being finalized.

The study looks at how four groups of people are treated in retail stores: Black women, Black men, White women and White men. The participants dressed similarly, all entered stores on weekdays, and aged 18-25. The participants all tried to return an item in original packaging, unused, with tags attached but without a receipt. The consumers used identical scripts with predetermined answers for each of the possible store employee responses.

Two-thirds of the retailers were publicly-held and ranged from large corporations to one-store retailers. The median price for products in the stores ranged from $5 to $350.

The Study Results

Of the four groups, Black males had the highest denial rate for their return. Black females were second.

Black males had the lowest rate of getting a store credit or exchange. Black males and Black females were tied for the lowest chance of getting a refund.

Black consumers were 25% more likely to be deprived of the right to return an item where they were entitled to by store policy.

White consumers were 25% more likely to receive a concession by having their return accepted when it went against posted store policy.


If the consumer tried to speak to a manager, White males had the highest chance and Black women had the lowest.

If they got to speak to a manager, White consumers were 15% more likely to receive an improved outcome than Black consumers.

The Disconnect

According to a study by Sephora, most retail employees cite shopper behavior and not shopper appearance in determining how to interact. Shoppers who experience discrimination see it differently.

According to the Sephora study, shoppers who expect to experience racism use coping mechanisms, particularly:


A book being published in March entitled Black People Breathe by Zee Clarke offers mindfulness exercises and breath exercises for people who are victims of racism in their daily life.

A chapter of the book entitled “Shopping While Black” includes a personal experience of the author where she is falsely accused of shoplifting from a supermarket. She writes, “When you’re a child, they call the security guards. When you’re an adult, they call the police.” A White policeman arrives with siren and lights and blocks her car from leaving. He tells the author, “We have a witness cashier that says you took several items without paying for them.” The author is made to lay out the entire contents of her car on the store parking lot and have everything checked against the receipt. Upon finding no stolen groceries, the officer warned the author as she repacked her car that an arrest warrant would be issued if anything problematic was later learned.

In a geographic area where law enforcement data showed that the typical shoplifter was a White female, most participants in a 2000 study in the area described the “typical shoplifter” as male, young and Black.

Former President Obama put it this way: “There are very few African-American men in this country who have not had the experience of being followed when they are shopping at a department store. Including me.”

The Retailers

No retailer wants discrimination in their stores. Sephora, like many retailers, has a multi-pronged plan to combat racism. It includes store employee training to improve the consistency of in-store experiences among all consumers, consciously expanding the range of appearance in all communications and marketing and explicitly supporting Black-owned brands with a link on its home page and its own sub-tab. Many other retailers have similarly ambitious plans.

Retailers who are focused on the problem and expend resources to fix it deserve a lot of credit. Maybe it’s too early or maybe retailers can’t fix the whole world, but it’s clear that the problem is not getting better fast enough.

Federal law is remarkably unprotective of victims of discrimination in retail stores. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 lists public places where discrimination is prohibited; retail stores are not on the list. In 1968, the Supreme Court wrote that retail stores were excluded from Title II because “there was little, if any, discrimination in the operation of them.”

State laws prohibit discrimination in retail stores but there are still seven states that don’t (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas).

Most anti-discrimination laws require proving “intent to discriminate” which is nearly impossible and makes such anti-discrimination laws toothless.

Using the law to coerce better behavior is not an ideal solution but it would help and has worked in other types of racism and discrimination. No doubt there will be accusations of wokeism. But that will most likely be claimed by people who do not experience discrimination in retail stores.

Let’s say there’s a long path to go on this issue.

This Year

This year’s holiday comes as most consumers are not concerned about the pandemic and the immediate rage of the George Floyd-related protests is behind us. It’s a good time for retailers to assess where they are in their environment and training.

Discrimination doesn’t just impact victims, it destroys the principle of equal justice under law that is the foundation of American society. If we act against it, we’re preventing fire in our own homes.

The video below is lighthearted but it highlights the problem. It’s a song from the Broadway show Avenue Q entitled, “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist.” Some of lyrics are:

“Look around and you will find,

no one’s really colorblind,

maybe it’s a fact we all should face,

everyone makes judgments based on race.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

This content was originally published here.

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