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Products, People, and Process: Considerations for Promoting DE+I in Retail

Companies today are making commendable strides in updating their internal DE+I (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) policies. However, it’s equally crucial for these companies to extend their commitment to diversity and inclusivity to their product offerings, marketing strategy, and in-store customer experience. There are various aspects companies can focus on to achieve these goals and examples of retail brands who are leading the charge to do so. In this piece, we outline considerations for promoting DE+in in retail with a focus on products, people, and process.  

Considerations for Promoting DE+I in Retail 

Size Inclusivity 

A fundamental aspect of diversity in product offerings is size inclusivity. Brands should provide sizing options in store that are more proportional to the size distribution of the US population, rather than providing limited selections of plus-sized options. Achieving this means offering extended size ranges across their product spectrum, rather than having a limited selection of items in plus sizes. Furthermore, companies should incorporate plus-size options into their regular merchandise lines, avoiding the tendency to create separate, less fashionable and flattering, plus-size collections.  

It’s worth noting that the average U.S. women’s size is 14-18, yet most sizing standards are still based on the smaller average size of 8. In 2021, the plus-size women’s clothing industry reached a staggering $34.3 billion and is expected to continue this growth, with brands like Universal Standard and Savage X Fenty leading the way and influencing others like Target, Nordstrom, and Anthropologie to expand their size offerings. 

While many brands offer inclusive sizes, a common issue is the limited availability of those extended sizes in physical stores. This pushes customers to shop online, where they lack the opportunity to try on items for fit and style. Expanding in-store availability of extended sizing can empower customers to make more informed in-person purchases, reducing the volume of online orders and subsequent in-store returns. This shift is particularly beneficial for individuals who tend to overbuy online, leading to a high rate of store returns. To keep up with more inclusive brands, retailers should periodically review their size offerings, ensure consistent quality across sizes, increase in-store size options, and train sales associates to assist customers of all sizes in finding their perfect fit.  

Model Representation 

In addition to size inclusivity, models representing a brand must reflect the diversity of its customer base. Many brands claim to embrace diversity but often fall short in practice, with models diverse in size or race, but seldom both. Statistics from models cast for shows in Fall 2022 show that only 48.8% of these models were POC, 2.34% were considered plus-size, and 1.34% of models identified as transgender or gender nonconforming. Furthermore, models with disabilities or more gender nonconforming identities are scarcely represented. To bridge this gap, brands should explore collaborations with models and influencers who connect with different audience segments. A notable exception is Aerie, setting a commendable example by featuring diverse models in size, race, abilities, and gender expressions. When brands make a commitment to such inclusivity, they can cater to a broader audience and allow people who may not fit the standard model demographic to see themselves represented. 

In-Store Experience 

In addition to considering DE&I in product offerings and marketing, retail brands must also consider how their customer retail experience can be modified to be more inclusive of all customers. In a study conducted by Sephora, three in five shoppers reported experiencing discriminatory treatment in retail spaces, and 3 in 5 retail employees have witnessed bias at their place of work. Some of the key factors that can contribute to discrimination in retail are lack of diversity among employees and leadership, inadequate training, and ineffective policies for documenting reports of discrimination.  

Retail environments lacking diversity in their front-line associates and leadership often struggle to understand the unique experiences of their diverse customer base, resulting in bias and discrimination. In the same Sephora study, 80% of retail shoppers reported difficulty finding associates who resemble them or understand their specific needs. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) customers, in particular, frequently felt judged based on their skin color and ethnicity when entering stores.  

To address this, retailers must be deliberate in their hiring practices to attract and retain diverse employees who can relate to a wide range of customer experiences. They can broaden their candidate pool by advertising job opportunities through minority professional organizations, schools serving minority students, and job fairs in diverse neighborhoods. While these examples focus on diversifying the racial backgrounds of retail employees, factors such as gender, size, and cultural background are also important to consider when reviewing hiring practices. Additionally, retailers should assess their interview processes to ensure candidates are evaluated by individuals from various backgrounds, offering different perspectives and reducing potential biases. 

Training Opportunities 

A lack of diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination training in retail can lead to misunderstandings and inappropriate behavior. According to one survey, 31% of retail associates reported not receiving any formal workplace training. Without proper training to recognize unconscious biases and stereotypes, frontline employees may inadvertently drive customers away, potentially harming the retail brand’s reputation. To address this, retailers should make training on cultural intelligence, inclusive language, stereotypes, and unconscious bias  Instead of passive online courses, interactive training with industry-specific scenarios and role-based exercises can boost engagement and effectiveness. Additionally, leadership must lead by example and actively participate in DE+I training to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion. 

Brands In Action 

In 2022, Sephora and Open To All launched the “Mitigate Racial Bias in Retail Charter,” which now includes more than 42 major retail brands like Gap, Anthropology, and J. Crew. Their collective mission is to reduce biased interactions in the shopping experience, promoting inclusivity and hospitality for all customers. These brands not only pledge to boost diversity in marketing, products, and their workforce, but also to provide specialized training for better serving BIPOC shoppers. Additionally, they commit to enhancing policies that proactively prevent discrimination, harassment, and racial profiling, while also refining loss prevention practices to reduce bias.  

A key aspect of the charter is the establishment of more effective feedback mechanisms for reporting unfair treatment, reinforcing their commitment to address complaints. While enhancing policies and procedures for DE+I in retail is a significant initial step, companies must actively seek feedback on these strategies and make necessary adjustments. Promoting diversity and inclusion in the retail sector is an ongoing journey that demands continuous evaluation and improvement. 

Fostering an Inclusive Retail Landscape 

Fostering diversity and inclusion in product offerings, marketing, and the customer retail experience is not just a moral imperative but also a savvy business strategy for retailers. By investing in strategies to promote diversity and inclusion in all areas of business, companies can tap into a growing market while making their customers feel seen, valued, and empowered.  

It’s evident that when brands commit to promoting inclusivity and addressing issues of discrimination and bias, they cater to a wider audience, foster a more inclusive environment, and ultimately thrive in an ever-evolving retail landscape. Contact our retail experts today to discuss these considerations for promoting DE+I in retail and how to incorporate DE+I strategy into your plans. 

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Contributions from Kayla Turk & Cathryn Cohenour 

Tags: Training, Customer Experience