Zara in Ceará: sellers from other retail stores confirm code usage for ‘suspicious customers’

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Zara in Ceará: sellers from other retail stores confirm code usage for ‘suspicious customers’

“Appear at children’s section”, “Vendor X, Aisle 8”, “Attention, standard”…. Messages like these, at first glance routine over loudspeakers or among clothing store salespeople, are often code for identify a potential “suspicious customer” that needs to be monitored. This is what employees who have already worked in trade throughout Brazil report.

And the identification of who is “suspect”, according to the reports, is based on behavior, way of dressing and also on skin color.

“If a black boy, wearing a cap and wearing simple clothes, enters the entire store’s radar, he needs to be monitored closely”, told BBC News Brasil Luísa*, 24, a former employee of a large clothing store in a mall in Rio de Janeiro (RJ).

Situations like these were reported by several people on social networks amid the revelation made by the Civil Police of Ceará that a Zara store, in a shopping center in Fortaleza (CE), would use a “code” to alert the presence of suspicious customers in the store.

Witnesses who worked at the store reportedly reported to the police that this “code” is communicated via the message “Zara zerou” every time a black customer or customer in simple clothes enters the store. In a note to the BBC, Zara denied the allegations and said there is no “internal code” to discriminate against customers.

But people with experience in commerce say the case is not surprising and is not an isolated move. “This practice of using codes to identify suspects is old and I would say it’s even standard in stores,” said Cristina*, 35, who worked from 2003 to 2006 in stores in malls in Brasília (DF).

The cases that reach the municipal centers of São Paulo that provide assistance to victims of racial discrimination also reveal that they are not new situations. “This history of codes has been around for many years. This issue, from supermarkets to large stores, is wide open,” says Elisa Rodrigues, executive secretary for the promotion of racial equality in São Paulo and who has been dealing with the fight against racism for decades.

Offer bags, advertise unsold products

Suzana*, from Bahia, 29 years old, now a student, had her first professional experience in 2011 in a large popular clothing retailer in a mall in Salvador (BA).

In the store, the recommendation from the beginning was to be careful with the big movement and pay attention to “strange people”.

“The strategy was, if you identify a ‘strange’ behavior or someone, you had to go there to break the ice. Offer a bag to put your clothes on, offer your store card, stay close by pretending you’re tidying up the sector,” he says. That is, show who has “someone watching” you.

In Rio, 30-year-old Hélio* worked in three stores as a loss and damage inspector, precisely with the aim of repressing thefts.

He argues that the use of code is “normal”, in order to avoid further constraints. “Many times whoever is watching the security cameras say the name of an employee who does not exist, like ‘Gabriel, corridor 4’, which means that there is someone suspicious there, he said.

“But that doesn’t mean that the wrong approach should be taken.”

In Brasília, Cristina recalls that, in smaller stores where she worked, the communication strategy between sellers was to advertise a product that did not exist in the store. “We’d yell at the stockpile something like ‘down the socks.’ Only we didn’t sell socks. So we knew we were supposed to keep an eye on someone.”

In large chains, where there are store security guards, former employees report that there is still intense communication via radio. “There was a table of words for us to communicate, describing the suspect’s color, clothing color, hair”, says Luísa, who was responsible for controlling the changing rooms in a large store in Rio.

Suspicious behavior or racist stereotype?

But how are suspicious people identified?

Suzana, from Salvador, says that already in admission training there is an orientation to observe customers looking for parts without alarm detectors, who have been in the store for a long time and handling large bags. But, she says, in the end there is a big judgment about appearance.

“It’s very complicated, because society creates these stereotypes of simple, poorly groomed, black people. It shouldn’t be up to the seller to evaluate this.”

In the market of higher-end stores in a shopping center in Belo Horizonte (MG) for 15 years, Carla*, 32, says “it’s the humble black people who call the attention of employees, because no one suspects a well-groomed white woman, that many times in the end is the one who steals”.

“If we heard the name of the store plus ‘go to the children’s session’, we had to drop everything to accompany that suspicious person. And, normally, she was black. It was a decision that came from each employee”.

Carla, who is black, says that she herself was considered suspicious as a customer in other establishments: “I went to a pharmacy recently and was followed, I was so nervous that I bought the first base I had in my hand to leave. We’ll count these situations in everyday life and they say it’s a lie, mimimi. Then there needs to be a scandal like that for people to wake up,” he opines.

Former store inspector Hélio, also black, argues that “all people inside a store are observed, but really the people that employees pay more attention to are those with simpler clothes, which they call ‘bandit clothes’ , reckless”. In his opinion, the problem is the approach mistakes. “Yes, there is the issue of racism, but there are also mistakes made by employees who have no experience in combating thefts.”

The brasiliense Cristina says that sellers are very afraid of having problems in cases of theft, such as having amounts deducted from their salary. And so they feed that system of codes and approach to protect themselves from situations like these.

“But this protection has several mechanisms based on racism. It is a system that feeds back, because workers earn poorly, want to protect their jobs and end up paying if there is a theft.”

‘Don’t shut up’

Some of the large Brazilian cities have services that provide assistance to the population in cases of racism in commerce. In São Paulo, the Reference Center for the Promotion of Racial Equality provides legal and psychological assistance and guidance to victims. In Niterói (RJ), the Center for Assistance to Victims of Racism was recently inaugurated.

“You have to believe in justice, not silence. Public policies were created to welcome black people. Many people say ‘let it go, it won’t work’, but we have many examples that do work”, says Elisa Rodrigues, executive secretary of the promotion of racial equality in São Paulo.

In cases of racial discrimination, says Rodrigues, it is very important that there are witnesses. In other words, if you have witnessed any case of racism, show solidarity and be available to the victim. Video and audio recordings also help in combating this type of crime. “But if you don’t have it, you have to take action in the same way,” he says.

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