Monday, January 17, 2005

Miracle on 34th Street

Does this sound familiar? You walk into a store and are prepared to shop, and security immediately begins tailing you. Guards routinely tell you to leave your packages or bags at the door--but ignore white people others with bags. Upon leaving the store, your bags are inspected, you are detained and/or falsely accused of shoplifting.

It's happened to me many times, and is a fact of life that many blacks and Latins must endure. But hopefully, this will happen less frequently at Macy's. This weekend, the giant retailer settled a massive racial profiling case with the New York state attorney general.

Eliot Spitzer, the AG, announced the $600,000 settlement. The money will cover the cost of the investigation and lawyers' fees. But luckily, it does not preclude lawsuits against Macy's by individual complainants. Now, it's likely that many cases may be filed.

The resolution followed an 18-month inquiry of five of the chain's 29 stores. Investigators found that 75 percent of shoppers detained on suspicion of shoplifting were black or Latino.

Officially, Macy's forbids racial and ethnic profiling. Per the settlement, the retailer must undertake numerous internal reforms. These include hiring outside auditors to test anonymously whether security employees' treat shoppers differently based on race and ethnicity.

Retailers say they have no choice but to aggressively curb loss prevention. Macy's East, which operates 95 Macy's stores, loses some $40 million to theft every year. However, retailers might do well to start with their own workers. According to the National Retail Federation, $26.6 billion in merchandise was lost to theft in 2002. But at least $15.8 billion was stolen by employees.