Walmart Will No Longer Lock Up Beauty Products for Black Customers

Policy change follows complaints of discrimination in multiple states

walmart store sign
The store policy has drawn complaints of racial discrimination. Walmart
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As calls for social justice reform continue around the country, Walmart is ending its policy of locking up hair care and beauty products for Black customers.

Walmart confirmed the news. It was originally reported by the New York Times, which cited an email from a Walmart spokesperson following criticism the practice was discriminatory.

The Times said hair care and beauty products targeting Black consumers were in glass cases in some stores—with “additional anti-theft measures” in some instances—which could only be accessed by Walmart employees. The Times report said these cases were sometimes right across the aisle from hair care and beauty products for customers of other races that were not under lock and key.

“As a retailer serving millions of customers every day from diverse backgrounds, Walmart does not tolerate discrimination of any kind. Like other retailers, the cases were put in place to deter shoplifters from some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products,” said Walmart in a statement, which also noted the practice was in place in about 12 of its 4700 U.S. stores.

Walmart said it is sensitive to the issue and understands the concerns raised by customers and members of the community, but did not comment further.

Americus Reed, professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said this is a bit of a misstep—not unlike the silence surrounding dairy brand Land O’Lakes’ packaging change. In both cases, he pointed to the three rules for responding to a brand crisis: You validate concerns, show action and control the narrative.

While the retailer has perhaps validated concerns and shown some action, Reed said Walmart could do more.

“You show action and not just ‘Here we are, unlocking all the Black stuff,’” he added. “You say, ‘We’re going to change this terrible policy and then here’s ten other things we’re going to do to make amends to continue on a path toward restoration and restoring our trust in the community.’”

Complaints about the practice previously surfaced in states including California, New York, North Carolina and Virginia.

It was the subject of a 2018 lawsuit in which customer Essie Grundy sued a Walmart in Riverside County, Calif. Per a statement from Grundy’s lawyer, Gloria Allred, the suit alleged Walmart violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which prohibits businesses from discriminating against customers on account of their race, after Grundy attempted to buy skin cream and a comb, which were locked away behind glass shelves, and was told she had to be escorted to the cash register for purchases.

Citing court documents, the Times said the suit was dropped in November. The terms of the reported resolution were unclear.

Reed said the brand crisis response plan is even more important here since Walmart had an opportunity to fix the problem two years ago.

But Walmart isn’t alone in the practice.

Adweek reached out to other retailers that sell hair care and beauty products, including CVS, Kroger and Target about their policies, and they did not respond.

A spokesperson for Walgreens, however, said it is “currently ensuring multicultural hair care and beauty products are not stored behind locked cases at any of our stores, which has been the case at a limited number of our stores.”

It’s the latest in a series of policy changes among retailers this week.

Amazon reversed course by instituting a one-year moratorium on use of its facial recognition technology by police, for example. And beauty retailer Sephora has committed to carrying more Black-owned brands.

Update: This story has been updated with a comment from Walgreens.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.