NEW YORK — Drugstore chains Walgreens and CVS Health say they will stop locking up beauty and hair care products aimed at black women and other women of color, joining Walmart in ending a practice at some stores that has drawn the ire of customers.
“We are currently ensuring multicultural hair care and beauty products are not stored behind locked cases at any of our stores," Walgreens said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press late Thursday.
Walmart on Wednesday said it would ban the practice, which took place at a dozen of its 4,700 stores and became the focus of a federal discrimination lawsuit filed in 2018 that was dropped a year later.
Retailers are rethinking their merchandising strategies in the wake of protests across the nation against police brutality and racial inequality following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While trying to undo discriminatory polices, they also realize they can't afford to turn off multicultural customers who are big spenders of beauty products. CVS noted that it's grown its textured hair and cosmetics area by 35% over the past year, and many of those brands are black-owned businesses.
Many stores have had a long-standing policy of locking up items that have high theft rates like batteries and razor blades. But experts say that locking up items catering to black customers, particularly in black neighborhoods, is widespread and retailers need to abolish it. They also say that stores lock up more items in black neighborhoods compared to white neighborhoods.
“If you lock up products for black people and you aren’t doing that for products for white customers, that is discriminatory,” said Neil Saunders, managing director at GlobalData Retail. “It is out of step with the times we are living now.”
Walmart said in a statement that like other retailers, the locked cases were put in place to deter shoplifters from some products such electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products. But it said, “We’re sensitive to the issue and understand the concerns raised by our customers and members of the community and have made the decision to discontinue placing multicultural hair care and beauty products in locked cases."
In 2018, Essie Grundy sued Walmart for locking up beauty items catering to black women. According to the complaint, Grundy went to the Walmart store in Perris, California several times and had to ask a sales clerk to unlock the display case for black hair and body products. Meanwhile, beauty items for non-blacks were not under lock and key, according to the suit. Grundy said she felt “shame and humiliation” as people were staring at her as if she were criminal as she waited for assistance.
That experience is all too familiar for Kendra Bracken-Ferguson, a black digital marketing and social media leader in the retail and beauty space. She says she gets annoyed by long waits for the sales associates to unlock the beauty and personal care products not just at the local grocer Albertsons but at other neighboring stores in View Park in Los Angeles, known as the “Black Beverly Hills." She says she doesn't see those products locked up in Beverly Hills.
Bracken-Ferguson said she has stopped going to stores where this is still practiced.
“It sends a message of being prosecuted as soon as you walk in, disrespected and generalized in a way that is psychological troubling because it is based on the race of your skin or where you live and nothing more," she wrote.