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After complaints, Walmart unlocks hair care products

A shopper at the Riverhead store complained to the company, to local leaders and the community after finding personal care products geared toward African-Americans behind lock and key.

The Walmart on Old Country Road in Riverhead,

The Walmart on Old Country Road in Riverhead, seen on Monday. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The Walmart in Riverhead reversed its decision to lock African-American hair care products in a glass case after receiving complaints from some customers.

The retailer began locking items up about a month ago because they were “heavily targeted by shoplifters,” but unlocked them Friday, said Casey Staheli, spokesman for Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart Inc.

“We heard our customers. . . . We review what items are targeted as well as the measures we take to ensure that they are available,” said Staheli, who said the items are still under other forms of security.

“We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind at Walmart.  . . . We’re sensitive to this situation and . . . understand, like other retailers, that some products are subject to additional security,” he said.

A Riverhead woman, Patricia Fulford, posted about the locked case on social media Jan. 26. In an interview, Fulford said she lobbied local legislators and community members to contact Walmart to express their objections to the items being locked up.

“It’s racial profiling. If this is true, if people are stealing these products, I feel like they should find a different way to secure them. Move them to the front, put a camera on the aisle, hire more security,” said Fulford, 54, who is African-American.

Fulford was in the store on the morning of Jan. 26 to buy shampoo and conditioner before heading to work, she said. After she found the products locked up, she said it took an employee 10 minutes to find the key.

She said she questioned a store manager about the items being under lock and key, but he didn’t provide an answer. Another store associate told her it was because people had been stealing the products, Fulford added.

After purchasing her items, Fulford returned them to the store later that day unused, and complained to a store manager and on the corporate customer service phone line, she said. She also posted a photo of the locked-up products and a description of the incident on her Facebook page.

Riverhead Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who is on the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, contacted Fulford, and arranged for her to meet with Riverhead Town Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith, Fulford said.

Kent did not respond to a request for comment.

Jens-Smith mailed a letter to the Riverhead Walmart and the retailer’s corporate office Thursday because the retailer had been unresponsive to residents’ concerns, she said.

“I wrote a letter . . . because we’re an inclusive community and these products really were not expensive products. They were mostly products used by the African-American residents in our community,” said Jens-Smith, who added that she was glad Walmart reversed its policy.

A photo of the hair care products in the case shows prices ranging from 97 cents to $25.92.

Walmart locks in cases various items that are heavily targeted for theft, such as baby formula, cosmetics, electronics, men’s razors and automotive items, and decisions on what to lock up are made on a store-by-store basis, Staheli said.

Local leaders, including NAACP Eastern Long Island Chapter President Lucius Ware, said they were upset that the black hair care products in the Riverhead Walmart were locked up.

The procedure was insensitive to the African-American community, said Phil Andrews, president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce Inc. “This is horrific and sends out a terrible message to African-American . . . consumers who patronize Walmart,” he said.

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