Since March, when New York City first shuttered its offices, restaurants, and most retail, I’ve done virtually all my shopping online. I was never an online shopper, but now I don’t know how I existed this long. This has been a vast shift in my spending patterns. Before, I traveled often, and ate out on a daily basis even when I was home in New York. Now, I cook — which is only possible because I ordered my first set pots and pans online. (Don’t judge me.) I even watch cooking competition shows on Netflix.
Just recently, though, I returned to a brick-and-mortar location for the first time in months — a luxury department store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. I was anxious before I walked in. Questions circled in my head. Would it be crowded? Would adequate safety measures be in place? Would shoppers adhere to the mask policy?
The one question I didn’t foresee myself asking, though, was where are the White people?
The main floor was filled with almost all Black shoppers. On an upper floor housing men’s apparel, the same dynamic persisted. And these weren’t solo shoppers; they were groups of Black men shopping together, advising each other on decisions. I asked a Black sales associate if he had witnessed similar patterns — the subverted racial ratio, the group shopping — before the pandemic. This wasn’t the norm, he said, but what he called “the coloring of retail.” Black shoppers, at least in his own observation, had been keeping the store afloat during lean times.
I asked him if the store acknowledged and appreciated the significance of the Black dollar in ways he had noticed, if there were any conversations around the coloring of retail that they were experiencing. His answer, not surprisingly, was no.
My friend in Houston recounted his colleagues making disparaging comments about the new “mall clientele” that were so rooted in bias and racist tropes that he reported them to the company’s Human Resource department.
Whether stores like this one truly don’t know that Black buying power was $1.4 trillion in 2019, or whether they choose to ignore that fact, is another question. For perspective, that’s higher than the gross domestic product of Mexico, and it’s projected to grow to $1.8 trillion by 2024 — a rate outpacing that of White buying power. Between 2000 and 2018, Black buying power rose 114%, compared to an 89% increase in White buying power.
What I experienced isn’t confined to New York City. I have a friend in Houston who works on the corporate side of a high-end retail fashion brand. This particular brand has a flagship store in Houston’s Galleria — the largest shopping destination in Texas. He confirmed to me that the majority of shoppers recently have been Black. “There are lines forming,” he told me, “waiting to get into the luxury brand flagship stores.”
What also held true in both cities was a failure of these stores to, as a second sales associate of color in New York City described it, “dignify the Black shopper.” My friend in Houston recounted his colleagues making disparaging comments about the new “mall clientele” that were so rooted in bias and racist tropes that he reported them to the company’s Human Resource department. In New York, both salespeople said their colleagues on the sales floor had groused about needing to assist customers that they would have normally overlooked. This minority had become the new majority clientele.
From what I saw in New York City, the Black customers comprised both men and women, but leaned slightly toward men. In Houston, my friend observed the same. According to the salespeople I asked, the majority of customers paid by credit card rather than cash — indicating they are banked, and thus likely gainfully employed despite a remark one salesperson made about “hustlers.” (You may now expunge the assumption that was lurking in your subconscious.)
The “coloring of retail” during economically uncertain times, in my eyes, has no moral component. If you’re privileged enough to be employed, you’re spending money. That’s borne out by increases both on Amazon and the larger the larger e-tail sphere. (More anecdotally, it’s also borne out by the deluge of Amazon boxes that arrive at my apartment building on a daily basis — to the point that building management had to send around a memo with instructions on how to discard the brown boxes.)
Who are we to judge or dictate what a person spends their money on, or what constitutes a “smart purchase” during an unprecedented global pandemic — not to mention the police killings of so many Black Americans against that already daunting backdrop? We all process trauma differently. But I do know retail therapy is real. According to financial psychologists, there is a psychological connection between your emotions and how you spend (and save) money, which explains how retail therapy can have such a positive, uplifting effect on our state of mind.
However, it all leads to an urgent question: How do we as Black Americans truly turn our buying power into political power? And please don’t say “vote.” There is a time and a place for that, obviously, but this is about making our dollars speak for us. Redirecting funds that we are spending into community investment. Community development.
Halfhearted boycotts are not enough. How do we influence corporate social responsibility to become more than just sponsoring a table at a charitable gala? How do we advocate for retail and luxury companies’ Chief Diversity Officers (my feelings about which are probably best saved for another day) reporting to the CEO rather than to Human Resource departments, so that they can prove that investment in the development of the Black community is good for the bottom line, as we’re seeing in this moment?
Corporate statements around diversity and inclusion, emotional responses in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, are all well and good. Donations to the same legacy civil rights organizations should of course continue. But that’s no longer enough. At its core this is all the same window dressing we see along Fifth Avenue during the holidays. Seasonal, reactive. It signals that you aren’t invested in true community impact, in partnering with organizations that aren’t just a recognizable acronym, but are doing work that’s strategically aligned with your business’ interest. But again, that requires you to be invested in the work beyond the season of race.
I stand with and support the LGBTQ+ community — there is nothing better than seeing pride flags in windows and capsule collections in the stores, seeing stores tell the community that they are seen and valued, and that hate will not be tolerated during the shopping experience — but where are the flags for Black Americans? Where are the capsule collections and assurances that the Black shopping experience and our trillion-dollar purchasing power will be dignified? In every Gallup poll since 1997, Black consumers have been most likely to report unfair treatment while shopping. In 2018, nearly 30% of Black Americans said they were treated unfairly because of their race when shopping in the past 30 days; 59% said that they are treated less fairly than Whites in stores downtown or at the shopping mall. Over the years, that percentage has risen.
And yet, here we are, “coloring retail” during a global health pandemic, while watching one Black man die under the knee of a White police officer, and another Black man get shot in the back at a Wendy’s drive-thru, and the funeral of an American icon who took a beating for our right to vote, and voter suppression tactics unspooling all the while. These are not questions I have an answer to — but they are questions I need an answer to. Immediately.