Why shelf space is such an important battleground for Black communities
Retailers looking to make good on abstract promises of support for the Black community would do well to start by analyzing their shelf space. This is a point raised by Brooklyn-based entrepreneur and founder of Brother Vellies Aurora James. She’s the voice behind the ‘15% pledge’, an initiative that encourages US-based businesses to make their product mix representative of the country’s demographic makeup by including more Black-owned brands.
‘What I was getting were a lot of emails and social media posts on my feed from these huge retailers that were, like, we stand with you,’ James told NPR. ‘And while I was reading it and seeing it, I wasn't necessarily feeling it. So what I asked myself is, what would it actually take for these retailers to do for me to actually believe that they were standing with me as a Black woman and also as a Black founder.’
Thus far beauty retailer Sephora is the biggest name to answer to James’ challenge, committing to analyzing how much of its shelf space and contracts are currently with Black-owned businesses; then ‘understanding blind spots and disparities, and identifying concrete next steps’, and finally publishing and executing a plan. Fashion rental service Rent the Runway has also signed on: ‘We’re collectively reckoning with the fact that for far too long, fashion has co-opted the style, inspiration and ideas of Black culture without ensuring that the people behind the work are properly compensated,’ CEO Jennifer Hyman said in a statement. Meanwhile apparel e-tailer Matches Fashion, though it hasn’t specifically agreed to the terms of the pledge, made a promise to improve the diversity of the brands it stocks and will begin publishing an annual survey of designers it carries by ethnic background.
Sephora has also said it aims make sure there are more Black-owned businesses for it to stock by facilitating conversations between startups and VCs. Access to investment is a major barrier to growth for Black entrepreneurs, with more than 75 per cent of all rounds raised going to all-white founding teams while Black-owned firms are twice as likely to face loan rejections. There’s no lack of talent, however: according to a 2019 report by American Express, Black women business owners are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the US.
Where ethical imperative isn’t enough, market forces might be. More retailers pledging to make more space for the products of Black founders should hopefully encourage the investment community to eradicate such bias. The fact that the consumer demand is there should certainly help. Over the last few weeks, customer pressure has seen platforms like Yelp, UberEats and DoorDash develop systems to help users search by company background. Many independent apps already existed to service this need of course, and they have similarly seen increased interest, with a dramatic spike in downloads over the last few weeks.
Shoppers clearly want to support the Black business community and are eager for tools to help them do so. But how does that read in a physical retail space? In some instances spotting the products of Black business owners has been all too easy. Skin and haircare has long been a site of Black entrepreneurship, largely because established brands catered to the community so poorly. The practice of security tagging these items, or in some cases locking them away entirely, often made them painfully visible. These are measures that retailers such as Walmart and CVS are now, belatedly, recognizing as discriminatory.
At the other extreme, however, it’s easy to see how big-box retailers might badly mishandle their response to consumer desire to support Black-owned brands. The idea of promoting products by ethnic provenance is highly problematic. Celebrity chef and founder of the Momofuku restaurant group David Chang has described the continued existence of the ethnic aisle in many US grocery stores as ‘the last bastion of racism that you can see in full daylight in retail America’. It’s an imperfect comparison, particularly as such aisles carry many products that aren’t developed by the communities whose food cultures they lay claim to, nor are they intended for them. But singling out can often lapse into segregation.
For some, however, creating dedicated spaces in which people can easily search out such products is, at least in the medium term, a necessary redress. ‘White people aren’t going out of their way to find other white businesses because they’re there – they’ve always been there,’ Nikki Porcher, founder of the nonprofit Buy From a Black Woman, told The New York Times. ‘If our cities didn’t get burned down, if our streets that were filled with nothing but Black businesses didn’t get burned down, we wouldn’t have to go seek them because they would already be there. They would be the Nikes, and the Walmarts, because those legacies would have been built.’