Barneys really stepped in it this week.
In case you haven't heard, he luxury department store is in the middle of a racial profiling scandal that seems at once appalling and also familiar to anyone who has ever worked in such an establishment.
The story broke on Tuesday that, after purchasing a $350 Ferragamo belt at Barneys' Madison Avenue store, a young, black gentleman named Trayon Christian was detained by undercover police who released him only after he proved that he had legitimately purchased item. A lawsuit against both Barneys and the NYPD followed, the filing of which appears to have sparked the firestorm of publicity.
Within 24 hours, another young black woman, Kayla Phillips of Brooklyn reported a similar story of purchasing a coveted $2,500 Céline handbag from the store and subsequently being accosted by undercover police in the nearby subway station who demanded identification and grilled her about details of the sale which they could only have known from communicating with Barneys staff. She will be suing too.
Obviously, New York's tabloids have been having a field day with the story this week. Interestingly, The New York Times' coverage has been minimal at best. Barneys has immediately shifted to damage control mode, using its Facebook page to issue two statements in two days, initially denying a specific role in the incidents and thus attempting to shift the blame to the Police, and then, yesterday evening, releasing a more apologetic statement from the store's CEO, Mark Lee, promising to work with Civil Rights experts and community leaders to review, and presumably improve security and customer service issues
The latest, inevitable twist has the store's highly touted Holiday promotion with Jay Z called into question with a Change.org petition calling for the star to end his partnership with the store that, as of this posting, has 1,664 supporters.
So far Jay Z has not responded.
Now that the scandal has reached the national news level, you can expect it to hang around for a while. Barneys executives are set to meet next week with local civil rights leaders, and social media is currently amplifying the issue and will continue to do so for the foreseeable news cycle. Here are a few things to know about this sort of situation from someone who has worked under the roof, not of Barneys, but other very similar types of establishments in New York.
There are undercover cops in every department store in the city.
The biggest ones like Macy's and Saks probably have more than one on the premises at any given moment that the store is open.
In addition, many of the security personnel in such stores are often retired Police officers.
Modern department store security cameras can follow customers through the premises from the moment they walk inside with little or no break. More often than not, any sort of confrontation involving security, police and a potential shoplifter or fraud are set in motion by security staff, not, as many assume, sale staff.
And finally, complicating the obvious race issues raised by Barneys' current scandal, store security or "Loss Prevention" teams, as they like to be called, in such establishments are typically quite diverse. You shouldn't necessarily assume that it is white security personnel who are profiling black customers.
Make of all this what you will.
There will surely be much more of this story to come.