Barney's Partners With Jay Z, but Is It Ready for Black Customers?

Accusations of Racial Profiling Show a Corporate Culture That Needs Work

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I'm not a Barneys New York shopper. I've shopped there in the past, but its very exclusive environment and often snobbish sales staff did not encourage me to return. I just didn't feel comfortable. At the same time, I felt that this was what they were going for -- part of their shtick. If you have to ask how much, you don't belong.

So it's not surprising to see Barneys charged with racial profiling by two African-Americans, who said they were accused of credit-card fraud and detained by police after making expensive, legitimate purchases. This, in a store that is partnering with the hip-hop star Jay Z on a new holiday collection.

I'm not critical of Barneys for tapping into Jay Z's influence to drive additional traffic to the store, but who do they think the new customers will be? Is this store prepared on the ground to tolerate an increase in black shoppers? The profiling incidents did occur prior to Jay Z product line launch, but they represent a possible prelude of more to come.

There's also more to this story than the accusations against Barneys. These incidents are reflective of a society and marketing industry that do not want to have conversations around differences, race, ethnicity and culture.

Barneys needs to have more insight about the new "opportunity segment" that Jay Z will attract. The store needs to know that many African Americans seek to counter negative stereotypes and perceptions of "less than" by society and in our own community by purchasing exclusive items -- clothes, cars, jewelry, even alcoholic beverages -- as "badge-value" objects to confirm or create how they want society to perceive them. Becoming early adapters, and having a little cachet in their style, helps defuse these perceptions and stereotypes.

That $349 Ferragamo belt purchased at Barney's by that young African-American engineering student, and the $2,500 Celine handbag purchased by the young black woman, were not just fashion statements, but statements about who they are and how they value themselves. As with so many marketers, I don't think Barneys gets it.

In the blogosphere, some are saying these shoppers shouldn't have spent so much on such expensive items. That may be true. But neither shopper stole the items or committed fraud. The need for black wealth-building is definitely an issue in our community, but it does not give Barneys permission to reject black shoppers or disrespect them.

Barney's CEO Mark Lee has apologized and hired a civil rights expert to examine the company's fairness policies. Jay Z has complained about being "demonized" in news reports, saying he doesn't want to make snap judgments about these cases.

The Rev. Al Sharpton and other community leaders are pressuring Barney's to do the right thing and have met with Lee. As the publicity mounts, the incident not only exposes the store's lack of sensitivity at the sales level, but also its diversity model (or lack thereof) to the world. Macy's is also on Sharpton's radar screen. The store is accused in several recent complaints of profiling black shoppers, and Sharpton has met with Macy's officials and threatened a holiday shopping boycott. In 2005, Macy's paid $600,000 to settle claims of profiling of black and Latinos at its stores in New York.

All of this should be a wake up call to marketers and particularly retailers to rethink their current practices about excluding conversations and strategies around differences. Different does not mean deficient. It's an opportunity.

Pepper Miller is the founder and president of The Hunter-Miller Group, Chicago. She is author of "Black Still Matters" and co-author of "What's Black About It?"

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