Retail leaders react to protests, riots in wake of George Floyd killing

Marianne Wilson
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Many of the nation's top retail leaders reached out to their employees and the community at large as stores went dark in select locations across the country amid disruptions and destruction in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

Target, Walmart, Apple, Walgreens, Nordstrom and CVS were among the many retailers that temporarily shuttered hundreds of stores over the weekend — with many locations expected to remain closed until the situation eases.

The events of the past several days saw many retail CEOs wade into the nation’s racial divide. Only four companies in the Fortune 500 have a black chief executive and two are in the retail industry: Lowe's and Tapestry, parent company of Coach and Kate Spade.   Marvin Ellison of Lowe’s, struck a personal note in his letter to employees regarding the recent unrest.

“I grew up in the segregated south and remember stories my parents shared about living in the Jim Crow South,” he wrote. “During this time of Jim Crow, people of color were viewed and considered second class citizens. So, I have a personal understanding of the fear and frustration that many of you are feeling. To overcome the challenges that we all face, we must use our voices and demand that ignorance and racism must come to an end.”

In a LinkedIn post to staff on Monday, Tapestry's Jide Zeitlin offered a stark assessment   about racism in the United States and how personal it was to him, noting when in the late 1980s  as a Harvard Business School graduate,  he worked in apartheid South Africa to help labor groups assist black miners and witnessed up close the suppression of black aspirations. He also noted that a number of the  company's stores had been vandalized and looted over the weekend in different U.S. cities and mused about what kind of despair would lead people to do that, but said those concerns were secondary.

"We can replace our windows and handbags, but we cannot bring back George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and too many others. Each of these black lives matter," wrote Zeitlin.

Minneapolis-based Target has a hometown store on Lake Street, across the street from the epicenter of many of the protests, that was heavily damaged by looters. The retailer has set a goal of reopening it by the end of this year.

In a letter on the chain’s website, Target's Brian Cornell wrote "we are a community in pain."   

“That pain is not unique to the Twin Cities—it extends across America," he said. "The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts. As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing. And as a team we’ve vowed to face pain with purpose.”

Nordstrom’s Eric Nordstrom and Peter Nordstrom, CEO and president/chief brand respectively, called for change in a letter to employees. 

“The issue of race and the experiences of too many people of color cannot be ignored,” they stated. “We owe it to our employees, our customers and our communities to be very clear in condemning these acts of violence. They represent a disregard for basic human rights that has no place in our communities or country, and certainly not at Nordstrom."

The senior leadership team of Best Buy, which is based in the suburbs of Minneapolis, posted a letter on the company’s website in which it renewed its commitment to diversity and inclusion goals.

“Every time we see this kind of tragedy it can be hard not to feel emotional, not just for the human being affected or their family, but for the colleagues we know who could be — and have been — victims of overt, hostile and even dangerous racism. If we allow ourselves, it is not hard to imagine them lying on the ground begging to breathe or bravely staring racism in the eye as they walk through a park,” the letter stated. 

Starbucks, which had a store in Philadelphia heavily damaged, said it held a “partner forum” for Starbucks employees who felt compelled to join a conversation about the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor “and the many other racial injustices that have shaken the entire country and each one of us.”

“As we all deal with our personal feelings and experiences through this, there are important questions in front of us,” said Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson in a letter to employees. “How can we help each other heal, and how can we contribute to society in a positive and constructive way on the topic of racism and injustice?”

Kohl's CEO Michelle Gass addressed the company's employees in a video message.

"Racism is not a new crisis, it is a long-standing systemic problem that has yet to be solved," she said. "We must continue to work to address the underlying biases and issues. We can stand together against racism and discrimination. We can support each other. We can create the good we want to see in the world."

Chip Bergh, president and CEO of Levi Strauss & Co., said that Levi's would expand its support for groups working to strengthen marginalized communities, starting with a $100,000 grant to the American Civil Liberties Union for its “critical work on criminal justice reform and racial justice” and another $100,000 grant to Live Free, which organizes local communities to curb gun violence and promote racial and economic justice.

“We at LS&Co. are far from perfect, Bergh stated. “We have a lot of work to do internally and externally to live up to the ideals we cherish as a company. That includes continuing to listen to Black employees when they speak about their experience at our offices, with our business and in our country.” 

Apple CEO Tim Cook addressed the killing of Floyd in a memo to employees on Sunday. In his letter, Cook denounced Floyd's killing and asked employees to be instruments of change in the creation of a "better, more just world for everyone," reported CNBC. He also said that Apple is making donations to a number of groups, including the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit committed to challenging racial injustice, ending mass incarceration, and protecting the human rights of the most vulnerable people in American society.
Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon also reached out to employees. 

“At a time when our response to the COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best in us, what took place earlier this week is further proof we must remain vigilant in standing together against racism and discrimination,” he stated. “Doing so is not only at the heart of the values of our company, it’s at the core of the most basic principles of human rights, dignity and justice.”