An ill-considered call to the police, in today’s social media climate, can spur a PR disaster.
Many companies have struggled to establish clear guidelines for employees who might suspect inappropriate behavior in their stores, as well as how to handle the confrontation. As social media users start to document such interactions, a local misstep can quickly become a national headache, a la Starbucks and L.A. Fitness.
The latest company, Nordstrom, is apologizing after employees called the police on three African-American teens shopping for prom outfits.
Mekhi Lee, Eric Rogers and Dirone Taylor were shopping at the Nordstrom Rack on Thursday when they noticed store employees closely eyeing them and following them through the aisles. Lee has just completed his freshman year of college and was with his longtime friends, Taylor and Rogers, who were shopping for prom.
There was a brief altercation in the retailer when a customer allegedly called them “punks” and asked “are your parents proud of you for what you do?“, according to St. Louis Dispatch.
The trio then made a purchase, which Rogers told the publication was “to show them that we’re equal and we didn’t have to steal anything.”
Despite this, the Brentwood Police met them in the parking lot as they were leaving and accused them of theft. An investigation showed that they were innocent, and police let them go without charges.
Brentwood’s chief of police Joseph Spiess told The Washington Post that the department was told “three black men, including one in a blue sweatsuit” were “shoplifting ‘handfuls of products.‘” Spiess told the publication that the officers listened to the three men and “put the story together.”
When company executives heard about the incident, they moved quickly to address the looming backlash.
Executives at Nordstrom heard about the encounter later on Thursday. The next day, the company’s president, Geevy Thomas, called and apologized to Mr. Lee, a freshman at Alabama A&M University, and the other men, Dirone Taylor and Eric Rogers, both seniors at De Smet Jesuit High School, a private school in St. Louis County.
“Recently there was a situation in one of our Rack stores that resulted in our employees calling the police,” a Nordstrom Rack spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday night. “We have guidelines that direct our employees to only call the police in emergency situations. Unfortunately, those guidelines weren’t followed.”
“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind,” the statement continued.
The company sent some of its top people to St. Louis to show how seriously it takes the incident.
The Times continued:
Mr. Thomas and other Nordstrom officials flew to St. Louis on Monday and met with store employees on Tuesday morning to discuss what happened. Later on Tuesday, Mr. Thomas met with the men and their families.
“I appreciate the opportunity to listen to their concerns and offer our sincere apologies on behalf of Nordstrom,” Mr. Thomas said in a statement after the meeting. “I also want to thank the young men for their poise in dealing with local law enforcement and the police themselves for handling the situation professionally.”
St. Louis NAACP president Adolphus M. Pruitt II praised Nordstrom’s words and actions.
While Mr. Pruitt said he was disappointed by the employees at the store, he said he was encouraged by the company’s response. “It does demonstrate that they are reacting in the right way,” he said, comparing its response to that of Starbucks after the arrest in Philadelphia.
But he added that the recent cases underscored the need for employees to receive racial-bias training, which Starbucks will conduct on one day later this month for workers in more than 8,000 stores in the United States. Nordstrom has been reviewing its employee policies and considering changes to training at both its department stores and Nordstrom Rack, its discount shops.
“Black children — black teenagers and black males, especially — are looked at this way at retail stores all across the country,” Mr. Pruitt said. “What are they going to do that goes beyond employees at one store?”
Twitter users shared the story, along with their own tales of harassment while shopping.
— April (@ReignOfApril) May 8, 2018
For some, the apology was insufficient:
Not good enough. https://t.co/1br7VZN9oT
— Shaun King (@ShaunKing) May 8, 2018
Corporate apologies are starting to wear thin for a community familiar with distrust.
Three young men, all black, were falsely accused of shoplifting in St. Louis. Stalked by store clerks, had their purchases vetted by cops outside the store, all of that. It’s good that @nordstromrack apologized for this. But I’m just so tired of this shit. https://t.co/9ubd7FoqOJ
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) May 9, 2018
another day, another incident. https://t.co/ugjYsV01mG
— deray (@deray) May 8, 2018
What would you have Nordstrom, or other companies facing allegations of racial bias, do to redress the problem?