Retail workers served on the front lines during the pandemic enforcing safety measures, which sometimes resulted in customer hostility. A new campaign aims to protect the workers—with customers’ help.
“The customer’s always right,” a popular maxim dating back to the early 1900’s, seems more outdated than ever as retailers work to protect their employees who face racist or discriminatory treatment from frustrated customers.
To address the alarming rise in discrimination against retail staff when enforcing safety measures during the pandemic, the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA), Open to All, and Hollaback! announced the launch of the Inclusive Retail campaign.
“We saw an opportunity to draw attention to that other side of the customer-retail worker relationship,” said Erin Hiatt, vice president of corporate social responsibility at RILA. “This is two-directional. This is about customers and employees both feeling welcomed and safe in the place where they’re shopping and where they’re working.”
The initiative offers two new resources: the Customer Action Center and the Open to All Inclusive Retail Business Toolkit. The action center features training for bystander intervention if shoppers see an employee experiencing unjust treatment from another customer. According to the groups, this is especially prevalent if the worker is a woman, person of color, person with disabilities, person of minority faith, or LGBTQ+.
The Open to All Inclusive Retail Business Toolkit contains resources and trainings to help retail environments create a culture of inclusion and belonging, including a sample customer belonging policy, an “Allyship and Advocacy” training video coproduced with Ralph Lauren, and a series of allyship and de-escalation materials. The materials were developed using findings from Sephora’s Racial Bias in Retail study, which revealed that one-in-five retail employees have experienced unfair treatment in the workplace.
“There shouldn’t be discrimination under any terms,” Hiatt said. “But if you’re making a snap judgement about someone based on who you perceive them to be, when the real issue is a disagreement around a different topic, we want to make it very clear there is a role for the customer here.”
The project also includes corporate partners Ascena Retail, American Eagle Outfitters, Capri Holdings, DICK’S Sporting Goods, Gap Inc., H&M, Michaels, Movado Group, Ralph Lauren, Sephora, and Tiffany & Company.
Strategies for engaging consumers with the campaign, in time for back-to-school shopping, include using a QR code at the end of receipts and embedding them on shopping websites that link to the Customer Pledge and Customer Action Center. The groups also plan to amp up visibility about the initiative on social media over the summer.
“We’re trying to create a positive, inclusive movement, and RILA has been an invaluable partner in offering its perspective,” said Calla Devlin Rongerude, director of Open to All. “They’ve been doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work for so long and being able to learn from them and not reinvent the wheel has been extraordinary.”
RILA became involved with Open to All because some of its members were part of the group and serve on RILA’s Diversity and Inclusion Leaders Council. Looking to members for groups they’re involved in is key, Hiatt said, because they play an important role as experts in the DEI space.
“This is a unique opportunity for us to show alignment and momentum around these issues and to work together in a way that reflects corporate responsibility,” Hiatt said.