By Glenn Townes

It’s been a series of ugly and racially charged scenes lately in New Jersey, and in the most unlikely of places—the local grocery store. An African American shopper called the N-word by a white female customer while shopping for meat in Somerville. A white male grocery store worker in Skillman posting bigoted, hateful and violent messages on Facebook about George Floyd, the African American man that was murdered by Minneapolis police officers; and a white female customer sobbing hysterically and causing a scene after accusing an African American employee of raising his voice at her while he was wearing a state mandated face mask at a busy deli counter in Princeton during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As the nation continues to grapple with racial unrest, tension, violence and a seemingly endless pandemic, the unfathomable notion of being verbally or physically assaulted while ordering a pound of bologna at the local grocery store has become a reality of sorts. The number of mostly racially motivated attacks have garnered notable and embarrassing headlines. Over the past several months, blaring headlines have included,  Supermarket shopper accused of racist attack in checkout line; Black woman says she was called a “n…..” while grocery shopping; Grocery store worker fired after posting racist comments; A man coughed on a Wegman’s Employee Now He’s Charged with a Felony.

The supermarket industry is a mostly staid, generational and legacy driven business. It has been slow to embrace change and diversity—especially in the management and senior administrative ranks. In light of embarrassing and well publicized recent events, and the COVID-19 pandemic,  grocery stores have been coerced—if not forced–to kick up their recruitment efforts and foster a truly divergent workforce. Despite various management training programs, the advent of digital and online shopping platforms, and niche marketing strategies geared toward energetic millennials, the industry remains a step or two behind the retail industry as a whole. Efforts to create a multifarious staff that extends well beyond the rank and file front line cashier, deli clerk, or butcher, to the upper ranks of store manager, administrator or senior executive continues to lag behind other service industries, according to some labor industry officials.

In a recent interview, Hazel Johnson-Marcus, an associate teaching professor and human resources workplace diversity expert at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in Piscataway, said, “Judging by what is visible as you walk around their stores, food retailers do a reasonable job with respect to the demographic diversity of their front-line employees.” However Johnson-Marcus noted, “It’s when you are standing in the checkout line and you look up at framed photos of the store’s manager and {team} leaders that the lack of diversity comes into sharp focus.” To that end,  Michele Meyer Shipp, Chief Diversity Officer for professional services firm, KPMG in New York and a former labor relations attorney, said raising awareness about workplace diversity and inclusion is an endless battle. She said a big part of the problem is educating people about conquering bias and engaging those in charge to promulgate for inclusive leadership. “The engagement of multiple leaders is extremely important in creating a culture of inclusion at any organization,” she said.

For example, a study last year by research firm Accenture found that nearly 30 percent of consumers said they would discontinue shopping at a retailer that fails to acquiesce to diversity and inclusion efforts. That statistic was even higher among shoppers of color—contending they would change their shopping habits to a retailer committed to diversity and inclusion—a similar response was echoed by LGBTQ shoppers with about 40 percent saying they would also shop elsewhere.

Lastly, CEO Rodney McMullen, the head of Kroger, the largest supermarket chain in the country with revenues of more than $121 billion in 2019, condemned the recent acts of racism in his industry and lauded Krogers more than 450,000 employees. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the most recent instances of racial injustice have changed our country in unmistakable ways, not the least of which is the devastating loss of life and livelihood that has affected so many Americans. Our company is proud to stand with our Black associates, customers and communities against racism and for a more just and equitable society.”

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