Was it a simple strategy to prevent shoplifting — or clearly problematic racial profiling?

By Sam Reed
Jun 23, 2020 @ 10:00 am
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UPDATE: After publication of this article an URBN representative contacted InStyle with a statement. The brand confirmed that code names Nick, Nicky, and Nicole were used as part of loss prevention in stores, but the accounts below represent that policy being "misused." "We are deeply saddened and disturbed by these reports, and we apologize profusely to any customers who were made to feel unwelcome in our stores. We will not tolerate racism, discrimination, or any form of racial profiling," the representative said. Original article follows.

A couple weeks ago, Instagram’s very own fashion (industry) police, Diet Prada, shared a headline on their page: “Boho Lifestyle Retailer Anthropologie Has a Secret Code Name for Black Customers.”  The mention of the “code name” stopped me in my tracks. Finally, someone is talking about Nick. 

I worked at two Urban Outfitters locations in Southern California while I was in college, from 2011 to 2014. As a naive 19-year-old with fashion blogger aspirations and an obsession with the Shins, Urban Outfitters was my dream job, and I arrived at my training session all doe-eyed and eager in my try-hard sweater shorts. (URBN is the parent company of Urban Outfitters, Free People, and Anthropologie, and utilizes similar in-store practices across brands.) As expected, there was a tour of the break “room” (read: hallway), an introduction to the managerial staff, and a breakdown of the employee discount. And then there was loss prevention training. 

From the beginning, it was made clear to the employees that loss prevention, or LP, was of tantamount importance, and it was our jobs as sales associates on the floor to make sure our merchandise was protected. In addition to meticulous inventory checks, the use of alarmed hard tags, and a few clever merchandising tricks, we were taught that the company used a code word for potential shoplifters: “Nick.” 

And this is where things got hairy. Who is a Nick (or Nicky, at some stores)? That’s a great question, and one that was never clearly answered. At my stores, a Nick could be someone who was seen shoving bralettes into their tote bag, or someone who left the fitting room with one or more items unaccounted for. But it was also used more loosely to denote anyone who looked “suspicious.” (URBN has not returned InStyle’s request for comment at press time. Anthropologie shared an Instagram post stating “we have never and will never have a code word based on a customer’s ethnicity or race.”)

“Someone is a Nick if they don’t fit the customer profile,” Noelle*, who worked at an Anthropologie store in Southern California between 2016 and 2018, tells InStyle. The higher-priced URBN brand’s location in an affluent San Diego neighborhood meant that Nicks were pretty much anyone who didn’t fit the “rich mom” look, she adds. “It wasn’t like, ‘If a person of color walks in, watch them.’ Even though that’s how it played out a majority of the time.”

Zoe*, who worked at an Anthropologie store in Boston between 2014 to 2017, tells InStyle that a Nick was “someone [who] looks sketchy,” or “someone [who] doesn’t say hello” when greeted. 

“At the time, Nick or Nicki was explained to me as, ‘Oh someone’s going to nick something, someone’s going to steal something,’ but it wasn’t until I actually left that job that I was like, ‘OK that’s actually literally a coded slur that we were using to identify primarily non-white shoplifters,’” she adds. “Which is really upsetting and really disgusting that from day one, they were training employees to use this word at their discretion and essentially not need any proof to back up why they thought someone was stealing.”  

“[Nick] was pretty much used for people they thought we should watch,” says Bri Codner, who worked at an Urban Outfitters store in Manhattan in 2017. “When I first started working there, we were told that it was for anyone suspicious, but as I kept working there, they told me that they felt like a lot of the kids in the neighborhood — a lot of the high school kids” were Nicks. “But the only person that I ever saw take something was a white woman,” she adds.  

“They always were telling me ‘Oh, it’s these kids that usually come in here and steal,’ but a lot of the times I would see those kids make purchases,” Bri continues. “[Racism] was always kind of subliminal, if that makes any sense. They didn’t exactly say, ‘Oh, it’s the Hispanic or Black kids,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s the high schooler' — and if you know that area [where the store was located], you know that the high school kids are Black or Hispanic.” 

In my own training, race was never explicitly mentioned as a means of identifying a suspicious person. But that silence left room for unconscious bias to fill the void. Without bias training or a need for proof when naming a Nick, there was no clear effort to prevent racist stereotyping. And when someone was identified as a "Nick"? It meant following or hovering around them as they shopped — treatment Black shoppers have long called out as unfairly used against them.

“Never, ever did I follow anyone, because I didn’t feel like that was right to do,” Bri says. “I’m not going to hover — that’s just not me. Because I know how it feels to be in a store and looking around or genuinely looking for something to buy and then someone’s following me, or making me feel uncomfortable, because I’m a Black woman myself.” 

Suspicion, by its very definition, is a feeling that is not rooted in anything concrete. It’s subjective. And with what we know about unconscious bias, as well as harmful stereotypes that label Black and brown people as threatening or “thugs,” the system of using a code word and following customers is setting up employees to fail — to give in to their worst instincts at the cost of Black and brown customers’ comfort and safety.  

“I witnessed times where [store managers] were actually called out directly by Black customers for following them,” says Zoe. “Sometimes [managers] would try to fake it when they were following a customer, like they ‘just so happened’ to be working in that area of the store. But there were other times where it was so completely, blatantly obvious [that they were] profiling customers.” 

When these confrontations occurred, Zoe adds, managers brushed them aside, telling the staff that the customer was “crazy,” another troubling stereotype often weaponized against Black women.

“Even when those direct call outs happened, Black customers calling out these white managers for following them around the store, there were never any greater conversations with the staff about profiling,” says Zoe of her experience at the Boston store. “There was no greater discussion that was had with the staff about prioritizing the merchandise over the comfort of our customers.” 

Davion Mceqwae, a sales associate at an Urban Outfitters in Manhattan (at a different location than Bri’s store) from 2016 to 2018, recalls instances when customers would overhear the mention of the code name over the walkie talkies. “Normally there was all this noise, and music playing and people shopping,” he says, but when an associate and a customer would be in an elevator together, the customer could hear everything. “A lot of times our walkies would be on speaker, and the Nicks would overhear like, ‘Mrs. Nick is in the elevator with her purple jacket on’ — and you’re in there with her.” 

Davion’s experience is just one more example of how the system, as Zoe stated, prioritizes merchandise over customer comfort — and that’s not OK. 

“Sometimes, people go into stores to just look,” says Bri. “Like, not everybody has money right away to make a purchase. So to already deem that person suspicious because they’re not making a purchase and because they’re Black or Hispanic, is wrong. Period.” 

In my four years of experience in retail, theft was rampant. I once witnessed a pack of white frat boys in sunglasses and baseball hats run out of the store with armfuls of graphic tees. Another time, a white teen girl set off the door alarm after stuffing the book, How to Steal Like an Artist, into her bag. (Yes, this really happened.) All of which begs the question: Does a code name system even work? Does it really prevent theft? Or does it only serve to make Black and brown customers feel disrespected and uncomfortable? One of these things, unequivocally, is happening. 

The practice is entirely predicated on intimidation. When tasked with following a Nick, I’d hope to see that person ditch an item they were holding, or remove something from their pocket and place it on a random shelf — because that would confirm that the system was working. But in hindsight, I realized that the whole point was to make a person too uncomfortable to steal — to make the person notice you following them, so that they either wouldn’t have an opportunity to put something in their bag unseen, or so that they would relinquish whatever it was that they had already hidden on themselves. But without concrete evidence of theft, it was a complete crapshoot as to whether you were making a thief uncomfortable, or you were making a customer uncomfortable. And those odds are not good enough. Not even close.

The URBN brands are certainly not the only retail chains to use coded language to alert employees to potential theft — former associates at Victoria’s Secret and American Eagle Outfitters tell InStyle that their stores had similar systems. But URBN, and Urban Outfitters in particular, purport themselves to be diverse and welcoming with pro-LGBTQ merch and advertising depicting diverse (albeit, thin), young people living in urban spaces. My own coworkers were some of the loveliest, kindest people I knew, diverse in every sense of the word. But that doesn’t mean that every store was as diverse as mine. Zoe and Noelle tell me that management was mostly white, and Davion adds that white managers at his store were rumored to have told the store’s white employees that a Nick was “any person of color.” And my store’s diversity doesn’t negate the fact that we were never trained about how to avoid racial profiling. My colleagues deserved better than a system that very well may have been used against them in a different store. 

As a company, URBN has had so many public gaffes that The Washington Post decided to compile them for convenience in 2012. Now 8-years-old, however, the list hardly covers the extent of their misdeeds. Here’s what it does cover: The use of the Native American tribe name Navajo as a descriptor for Native-inspired prints on flasks and panties that have no association with the Navajo people; a women’s shirt with the words “Eat Less” stamped across it, which was criticized by health activists as promoting disordered eating; the uncanny resemblance of Urban jewelry to independent jewelers’ goods on Etsy; the time Urban Outfitters sold a T-shirt with the phrase, “New Mexico, cleaner than regular Mexico.” URBN’s founder and CEO, Richard Hayne, has also come under fire for profiting from a liberal, progressive image while donating to mainstream Republican politicians.

I want to make it clear that I am not calling for anarchy or a system in which thieves are not held accountable for their actions. According to the National Retail Federation, shrink (or lost sales) “costs retailers about 1.33% of sales, on average — a total impact on the overall U.S. retail economy of $46.8 billion in 2017.” Clearly, LP is an issue. But there are not-racist ways to prevent product loss, many of which are already in place at Urban and similar large retail stores. 

Zoe explains that when she left Anthropologie and began working at Everlane’s flagship store in New York, she learned an entirely new mindset about loss prevention. “When we were going through training, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, when are we going to get to LP?’ And I remember it so clearly because the LP training was essentially non-existent.” 

“At Anthropologie, theft was a daily concern, we were always re-learning how to stop theft; it was this big, bad burden among us all. But at Everlane, the LP training just boiled down to: People might steal. It’s not really our business to stop them. We’re not the law. We don’t want to make them feel unwelcome, so we would never try to track down a theft if we assumed that someone was stealing.” 

“It was very, very different, and I remembered that my mind was blown, because my entire retail experience up to that point was loss prevention always needs to be on your mind, all the time,” she continues. “Everlane has a whole other host of issues, but that was really eye-opening for me to see another retail company take the stance that it’s gonna happen, but at the end of the day it’s your job to help people experience this brand, and help people find clothes. It’s not your job to be a crime-stopper.” 

*Last name withheld for privacy.