Riverhead Walmart reverses policy on locked items after community backlash

02/07/2019 6:00 AM |

Backlash from the Riverhead community has led Walmart to reverse a policy of keeping hair care products intended for African-American women in a locked glass case.

Walmart’s decision Friday to remove those items from locked cases at the Riverhead and Middle Island stores was sparked by a complaint from Patricia Fulford of Riverhead.

Ms. Fulford, 54, said she was shocked when she stopped at the Riverhead Walmart Jan. 26 to buy shampoo on her way to work. 

“I couldn’t find my products. After a couple minutes, it dawned on me that my products were locked up,” she said. Ms. Fulford said she’d bought the same products from Walmart previously but this was the first time she saw them behind glass. The products range in price from $0.97 to $25.92.

She asked a sales associate to unlock the case, only to be left waiting for 10 minutes with no response, Ms. Fulford said.

She then approached the customer service desk and asked a manager why the products were under lock and key . She said the manager struggled to respond and a sales associate told her people had been stealing the products.

“I said, ‘Are you saying that only black people steal from Walmart? White people don’t steal from Walmart? That’s racist,’ ” she recalled.

Ms. Fulford completed her purchase, but returned the products later that day and posted about the incident on Facebook. Soon after, Councilwoman Catherine Kent, the Town Board liaison to Riverhead’s Anti-Bias Task Force, contacted Ms. Fulford via social media. They later met in person and discussed the situation with Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith.

The Anti-Bias Task Force sent a letter to Walmart’s corporate office last Wednesday explaining how locking the products demonstrates inequality, Ms. Kent said. Meanwhile, Ms. Fulford asked her friends and fellow community members to call the store and complain. The next day, Ms. Jens-Smith wrote a separate letter to the store and Walmart’s corporate office, Ms. Fulford said.

“They told me the reason that they do it is because of theft,” said Ms. Kent, who visited the store last week with task force chairperson Connie Lassandro. “The community is outraged.”

After nearly a week of community upheaval, the Riverhead and Middle Island Walmarts removed the products from the cases Friday morning. The story first appeared online last Thursday on riverheadlocal.com.

Walmart representative Casey Staheli said in a statement Friday that the locked products are “high-shrink,” meaning frequently stolen, items that are identified using internal data the company does not distribute publicly.

“We’re sensitive to this situation and also understand, like other retailers, that some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products are subject to additional security,” the statement said. 

In a separate statement Tuesday, the company said that discrimination of any kind is not tolerated at Walmart.

“We serve more than 140 million customers weekly, crossing all demographics, and are focused on meeting their needs while providing the best shopping experience at each store,” the statement said. “Our goal is to ensure that we offer a wide variety of products to our diverse array of customers at the low prices they have come to expect.”

Ms. Fulford said she has received some backlash from community members throughout the week as she’s updated her social media on the issue. They’ve criticized her for overreacting, she said.

There are 11 Walmart locations on Long Island. According to a 2018 document from the company, African Americans make up 44 percent of the Walmart workforce nationwide.

Ms. Fulford said she believes Walmart should make its internal data on theft public and consider alternative solutions to address shoplifting. 

 “If it’s in multiple Walmarts across the island, then find a different way to resolve this,” she said. “Put more security cameras in, add more security guards, but don’t make me feel like I’m less-than because I’m black and I want to buy shampoo.”

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Photo caption: After an outcry from the Riverhead community, the Riverhead Walmart unlocked hair care products intended for African-American women Friday morning. (Kate Nalepinski photo)

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