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Nordstrom Rack says sorry to black customers of St Louis store

The three teenagers had bought items from the store, but its employees tailed them and called the police

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Nordstrom Rack is the discount division of century-old Nordstrom Inc. Since then, Nordstrom has become a leading fashion retailer with more than 100 stores and an e-commerce business, says its website.

New York

THE president of Nordstrom Rack flew to St Louis to apologise on Tuesday to three black friends who were falsely accused last week of trying to steal clothing at one of the company's stores.

The teenagers had stopped at a Nordstrom Rack in suburban St Louis last Thursday to look for last-minute deals before a high-school prom the following night. Two employees followed them throughout the store, monitoring their every move, and reported them to police.

Mekhi Lee, 19, told one of the city's television stations on Tuesday: "Every time we moved, they moved."

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When they left the store, carrying items they had just purchased, police officers were waiting for them outside.

For many minorities, what happened at Nordstrom Rack illustrated a disheartening everyday truth about racial discrimination in the United States, where merely entering a store is enough to draw suspicions. The experiences are not new, but the rise of cellphone video has highlighted recent cases, including the arrest of two black men last month at a Starbucks outlet in Philadelphia.

The episodes can quickly morph into disastrous situations for companies, spurred by bad employees in one store whose actions are caught on video and risk blemishing an entire organisation's reputation.

Executives at Nordstrom heard about the encounter later on Thursday. The next day, the company's president, Geevy Thomas, called and apologised to Mr Lee, a freshman at Alabama A&M University, and the other men, Dirone Taylor and Eric Rogers, both seniors at De Smet Jesuit High School, a private school in St Louis county.

A spokesman for the store said in a statement on Tuesday evening: "Recently, there was a situation in one of our Rack stores that resulted in our employees calling the police. We have guidelines that direct our employees to call the police only in emergency situations. Unfortunately, those guidelines weren't followed. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind."

The company is investigating the actions of the employees involved in the episode.

The men could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Mr Thomas and other Nordstrom officials flew to St Louis on Monday and met with store employees the following morning to discuss what happened.

Later that day, Mr Thomas met with the men and their families. He said in a statement later: "I appreciate the opportunity to listen to their concerns and offer our sincere apologies on behalf of Nordstrom. I also want to thank the young men for their poise in dealing with local law enforcement and the police themselves for handling the situation professionally."

Addolphus M. Pruitt II, the president of the St Louis chapter of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) who met with the friends after the episode, said both police and the men handled the situation perfectly.

Inside the store, as the two employees were following them, the friends debated leaving, but decided they would buy some items to show the employees had been wrong, and that they were not stealing and had money to spend, he said.

When the police arrived, the men cooperated with the officers, showed them their receipts and let them look inside their shopping bags and car, he said.

The officers stressed that they were called out only because an employee had called 911. The police realised they were not thieves and let them go. "They allowed them to tell their side of the story, and the police told their side of the story," Mr Pruitt said on Tuesday.

"In today's day in time, it is remarkable. If we can get that to repeat itself as much as possible, boy, it would make my job easier."

While Mr Pruitt said he was disappointed by the employees at the store, he said he was encouraged by the company's response. "It does demonstrate that they are reacting in the right way," he said, comparing its response to that of Starbucks after the arrest in Philadelphia. But he added the recent cases underscored the need for employees to receive racial-bias training, which Starbucks will conduct on one day later this month for workers in more than 8,000 stores in the US.

Nordstrom has been reviewing its employee policies and considering changes to training at both its department stores and Nordstrom Rack, its discount shops.

"Black children - black teenagers and black males, especially - are looked at this way at retail stores all across the country," Mr Pruitt said. "What are they going to do that goes beyond employees at one store?"

Bryant Marks, a social psychologist at Morehouse College and a founder of the National Training Institute on Race and Equity, said company executives had quickly understood that they must react swiftly to these cases. "Corporate leadership will continue to have a rapid response to these incidences as to not appear to be tone deaf regarding race and bias in America," he said via e-mail.

"This is somewhat of a wake-up call for large corporations. I say 'somewhat' because the vast majority of them have diversity officers or units already in place, but in my experience, I find those units to be under- funded and their work to be low priority." NYTIMES