Sociologist Cassi Pittman Claytor outlines the work that needs to be done to combat retail racism: 'You can't treat a disease if you do not have metrics to test for it and diagnose it'
- Cassi Pittman Claytor, a professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, says it's imperative that retailers have a data-driven approach to combatting
racismin the industry.
- "If companies have methods to identify where the problem is and where it's more pronounced, they're going to be more effective in addressing it. You can't treat a disease if you do not have metrics to test for it and to diagnose it," she said during a keynote address at Business Insider's IGNITION: A
RetailRevolution event, presented by Salesforce.
- She pointed to recent campaigns, like the 15% Pledge, as an opportunity for retailers to not only "talk the talk, but to walk the walk."
Racism presents itself in many different parts of American society, including retail stores.
And, in a year of major upheaval, consumers are demanding that retailers rid their stores and brands of racist marketing and practices.
In a keynote address at Business Insider's IGNITION: A Retail Revolution event, presented by Salesforce, Cassi Pittman Claytor, the Climo junior professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University, explained why it's more important than ever for businesses to examine their messaging and ensure they are serving all customers equally, regardless of their race.
"Businesses can no longer be racially insensitive. And this is consistent with research that indicates that organizations, whether or not they know it, often promote cultural practices and systems of evaluation and protocols, both formal and informal, that can favor one racial group over another," Pittman Claytor said. "In order to address this problem, we can no longer act like race doesn't matter."
Retail settings are a critical site for combatting racism because it's one of few areas where people "cross the color line" and interact with people outside of their own segregated communities.
"In these settings, consumers of color have to navigate and read social cues that often indicate that they are not welcome," Pittman Claytor said, referencing marketing campaigns or signs that show only white models.
She pointed to research that found that Black people reported being treated unfairly due to their race more often when they are shopping than when they are interacting with police.
While conducting research on retail racism, Pittman Claytor took on a temporary position as a sales worker at a luxury store in New York City. As the store was getting ready for the holiday season, she said, she noticed that of the 10 to 15 posters that were hung up around the store, all of the models were white and thin, and almost all of them were blond.
"This clearly indicates to consumers, but also to store staff, who is considered ideal and who is considered on-brand," she said.
Language and tone also play a large role in how welcome customers feel in a particular setting.
"Social psychological research indicates that we are very good judges of whether or not we are respected and welcomed and that this is often communicated and conveyed in language, as well as tone of voice," she said. "Even babies can detect warmness and warm regard."
In order to successfully combat racial injustice, companies need to take concrete steps that are driven by data Pittman Claytor said.
She pointed to Yelp's new tool that alerts customers about businesses that have been accused of racist behavior, as well as the mockery that can often ensue online when brands attempt to engage in conversation about racism in a way that does not seem genuine.
Recent campaigns like "Pull Up or Shut Up," which calls on brands to share company diversity data, and the "15% Pledge," which asks brands to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses, represent an opportunity for retailers to not only "talk the talk, but to walk the walk," Pittman Claytor said.
She added that an important step in eliminating racist interactions in retail settings is to collect data on when and how often they are happening before developing strategies to stop these interactions from happening. Pittman Claytor recently led a natonal research effort to examine how racism plays out in every step of the purchase process. Though the study was commissioned by Sephora, the goal is for its findings to be applicable to any retailer.
Pittman Claytor compared the data-driven approach to addressing retail racism to the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"If companies have methods to identify where the problem is and where it's more pronounced, they're going to be more effective in addressing it," she said. "You can't treat a disease if you do not have metrics to test for it and to diagnose it."
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