Anthropologie’s white employees didn’t feel right when they realized the customers they were being asked to follow around the store for suspected shoplifting — “Nicks” and “Nickys,” as the company called them — were disproportionately people of color.
The feeling was far worse for Anthropologie’s Black employees.
“We were made to follow people. Of course, we feel horrible because we know that they’re not stealing,” said Angelika Robison, a Black and Puerto Rican woman who used to work at an Anthropologie store in Boston. “I’d come home and be in tears. I’d have a crappy day at work because I was told to follow around a person who wasn’t stealing that happens to look just like me.”
Former employees of Anthropologie stores in multiple states told BuzzFeed News they observed the company’s code words for suspected shoplifters — “Nick” and “Nicky” — being largely directed at people of color, particularly Black customers. None of the people BuzzFeed News interviewed said employees received bias or sensitivity training. They described these practices as symptoms of a company and brand that were heavily whitewashed and lacked a diverse management. Anthropologie, a high-end retailer that sells casual dresses for hundreds of dollars and home goods like $350 pillows, has fostered a narrow view of the “ideal” customer and worker, which former employees said has created a racist and toxic work environment.
Anthropologie said in a statement to BuzzFeed News: “We strongly believe that every customer, partner, vendor, employee, and associate should feel welcomed and respected when they walk through our doors. It is clear that there is work for us to do to make that a reality.” The company added, “Anthropologie absolutely rejects racism, racial discrimination, and profiling of any form, and we have revised our shoplifting prevention policy to eliminate the use of any code words.”
As the violent police killings of Black Americans forces a painful confrontation of embedded racism and long-standing inequalities in all corners of American life, practices such as these are now being aired out publicly.
Robison said that despite having worked in retail for years, she was paid about $13 per hour, which was $2 per hour less than what a white colleague who had no retail experience made. A number of people said that despite hopes of being promoted, they were denied or told to work in areas other than the front of the store. The effect, said Robison, was Anthropologie’s white managers “made Black people feel less than them.”
Former employees in stores around the country recalled similar experiences. “Why can’t a Black lady and her friend come to the store without you thinking they are there to steal?” said Naomi Abrams, a Black woman who worked at Anthropologie stores in Virginia and New York City. “At first, I felt 100% conflicted. … I never followed through with the instructions [to follow around Black customers who were not stealing]. … I would just respond ‘copy that’ … and pretend I was on it.”
Based on multiple accounts, Anthropologie employees communicate by headset. They would use the code word “Nick” or “Nicky” (or “Connie” at some stores) to signal to colleagues to keep an eye out for a potential shoplifter, for example: “My friend Nick is walking towards the back now. Can someone help him?” According to former employees, the company’s protocols instruct them to follow the suspect and extend extra customer service to them as a way to keep watch; some described it as bordering on harassment. If an employee caught someone attempting to steal, rather than causing a commotion, they would say, for instance, “Would you like me to start a fitting room for that dress?”
Anthropologie said in its statement, “Our shoplifting policy previously instructed associates to use the code names ‘Nick’/‘Nicky’/‘Nicole’ to identify potential shoplifters. It has been brought to our attention that this policy was misused. We are deeply saddened and disturbed by the reports of racial profiling in our stores, and we profusely apologize to each and every customer who was made to feel unwelcome.”
Abrams said, “Going on to my last year there, when I began to feel completely exhausted with the company, and we would get the [“Nick’] announcement over the headset, I would look at my fellow Black employees and we would just roll our eyes in solidarity.”
Former employees said Anthropologie never told them to single out Black shoppers, but the company also did not train them or store leaders to be conscious of biases, which they said were obvious in the workplace. Many also said they were uncomfortable with the code word “Nick,” a British slang term for shoplifting, which sounded too close to a racial slur, considering how it was being used.
A former store manager in California, who asked not to be named, said if employees are overusing the code word on people of color, store leaders do not seem to be stopping it.
Another former employee, who asked not to be named to protect her privacy, said, “I had this one Caribbean woman, who would come in once a week, and she would shop. … One time she came up to me crying because she felt they were really watching her.” This employee eventually quit Anthropologie shortly after a manager “called ‘Nick’” on her boyfriend when he came to pick her up from the store.
“I heard over the walkie from a white male manager, ‘There’s a possible Nick. He’s wearing a red jacket.’ He was describing what my boyfriend was wearing. When I came up and I hugged him, my manager was like, ‘Do you know this guy?’ And I said, ‘Yes, he’s my boyfriend.’ And he was like, ‘Oh shit, we just Nicked him.’” Her manager said her boyfriend’s backpack seemed suspicious. “You act like it’s a crime to wear a backpack, but that’s not an excuse. He wasn’t touching the merchandise; it’s not like he walked to the back of the store. He came in, looked around for me, and sat in the area where all the other men were sitting.”
Anthropologie is far from the only retailer where Black people have reported racial profiling. Cassi Pittman Claytor, a professor at Case Western Reserve University, has researched “retail racism,” which she described as prevalent everywhere from luxury stores to grocers in a 2017 study. “Stores that sold high-end apparel were often mentioned by respondents as hot-spots of discriminatory treatment,” she wrote, as sales associates assumed Black people could not afford to shop there. She described retail settings as “places where racial hierarchies are maintained, and even embedded into the branding and the status attached to goods.”
“It’s a way of reinforcing a consumer racial hierarchy,” Pittman Claytor told BuzzFeed News. “Retail stores, where these types of practices go unchecked, suffer from problematic organizational culture, but this is not definitely not an isolated event, as it occurs throughout the industry and highlights the stereotype that Black customers are likely to be ‘criminal’ and thus are treated suspiciously.”
Anthropologie describes itself as being tailored to “sophisticated and contemporary women aged 28 to 45.” It has 200 stores in the US and several locations in Canada and Europe. Its owner, Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters, has for years been the subject of numerous race-based controversies, including the "Ghettopoly" board game, its “Navajo” apparel, and its repeatedly offensive apparel designs, to name a few. Anthropologie made $1.6 billion in sales last year, about 40% of Urban Outfitters’ overall business.
Urban Outfitters has been criticized for its lack of diversity before. Year after year, shareholders rejected a resolution to add more women and people from minority groups to its board. One of the three women currently on the board is Margaret Hayne, wife of CEO Richard Hayne, a contributor to such Republican candidates as Rick Santorum.
The company did not respond to questions from BuzzFeed News about its diversity metrics.
“I was the only Black person in leadership in my store,” said Ichelle Mundy, a former department supervisor at an Anthropologie in New York. “It made me uncomfortable that [people of color] would be racially profiled just because they are not used to those customers shopping there and actually purchasing things. Don’t get me wrong — sometimes they would in fact be shoplifters, but the fact that they think you could be a shoplifter if you are someone who doesn’t shop at their store as often as someone that is white … is completely wrong.”
Mundy said she left the company after she was denied a promotion and then asked to train the person hired for the position, a white woman. She said all of her managers at Anthropologie were white. “The higher-ups and leadership team really need to reevaluate how they are dealing with scenarios in terms of diversity and inclusion, everything that has to do with the topic of people of color. They have to do better.”
One former employee of BHLDN, Anthropologie’s wedding line, who asked to be identified by her first name, Vanessa, said: “It’s just so whitewashed. There’s no way around it. The levels of representation are so low.” She said her experience at a store in Philadelphia was positive, but “Anthropologie’s bohemian-ness suggests a kind of ethnic diversity, but it’s the fantasized version of it. Their models and the ideal they represent is very white; I don’t think that escapes anyone. All the aesthetics they draw from seem to be global … but it’s this weird, corporate, whitewashed version of diversity. My experience was fine, but I was always like, Anthropologie as a store. This isn’t fooling anybody.”
Former employees said Anthropologie’s target customer, referred to “she” and “her” in its employee handbook, is essentially a wealthy, middle-aged white woman. Black customers were not common in stores, a number of the former employees said, and when they did come, they attracted negative attention from staff. They said teenagers were often suspects as well.
“I have complained about these things before but just have never been heard,” said Katie Knox, a white woman who worked at a Boston location. “It’s just a toxic work environment.”
“I was just disappointed in myself for being complicit and working for a company that has those values,” said Katie Ryan, a white woman who also worked at a Boston location and eventually expressed her concerns to her managers. “It’s definitely disheartening because a lot of people who work at Anthropologie are young girls. I think [Anthropologie] should be very careful about the way they are teaching those girls to work. How they did it for us was not right. They basically were having us racially profile without explicitly saying that.”
Sources said they had not seen any corporate policy that condoned racial profiling but felt, at some level, it came down to the store managers the company was hiring. Some former employees said they had positive experiences overall at Anthropologie despite shortcomings in diversity and notable differences in how it treated staffers and shoppers who were people of color.
“You’re being taught by who all the current managers are,” said Vanessa Bean, a Black woman and former employee of an Anthropologie in Virginia who was promoted from an associate to apparel department supervisor. While she did not witness profiling at her store, she said, “I can very easily see how having one manager can influence how they would have trained somebody and they go on to train people, and it just becomes par for the course in terms of how you’re treating other people.”
As shoppers, a number of former Anthropologie employees said they have experienced being followed around by employees when they went to other Anthropologie locations or Urban Outfitters–owned stores, including the “women’s boho clothing” store Free People.
“I went into a Free People once, and I overheard them use a code word for me. … I complained to one of my managers at Anthropologie, and they said I should take it to corporate. So I spoke to them on the phone and let them know, and they said they would investigate it, but it was swept under the rug,” said Naomi Abrams. “It made me extremely uncomfortable. … I have never experienced being followed before, or at least I was never aware of it.”
Anthropologie told BuzzFeed News it was “rapidly implementing a comprehensive diversity and inclusion strategy.” The company said it would conduct a third-party review of its stores, employees, and practices; require mandatory diversity, inclusion, and implicit bias training for associates and managers by July 30; and hire a more diverse workforce, including recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities.
Angelika Robison said she is glad Anthropologie is now confronting reports of racial bias in its stores. “My dad is a police officer in Miami. He is a Black male and has dealt with a lot of racism and prejudice in his life,” said Robison. “I remember the first time I called him crying about my Anthropologie experience and he said, ‘Angelika, I have had to deal with this every single day. This is just something that you’re going to have to live with.’ Unfortunately, this is what we’re taught: that nothing is going to change, that no one is going to listen. … I decided that wasn’t going to be the case for me.”