Riverhead Walmart has locked African-American hair care products in a glass case.

Patricia Fulford of Riverhead stopped in at the store on her way to work last Saturday morning and couldn’t find the brand of shampoo and conditioner she usually buys there. She found them eventually — but they weren’t on the shelves with the rest of the hair care products.

Instead, they were in a locked glass case.

“I was like, oh my God, they locked them up,” Fulford said in an interview this afternoon.

Fulford had to find a store associate and ask to access the products. Then she had to wait 10 minutes before an associate with a key came to her assistance.

By then she knew she was going to be late for work. And that was before she even got in line at the checkout.

“Just to buy shampoo and conditioner.”

She went to find a manager to complain. She was told by the associate the products were locked up “because people have been stealing,” she said.

“‘Are you saying no other race steals? Only black people steal?’” Fulford said she asked him.

The conversation went nowhere. The manager told her it was a corporate policy and advised her to call 1-800-Walmart to complain, she said.

Fulford later decided to return the products to Walmart. “I went to Target and bought them there,” she said.

She called Walmart and was told decisions about which products require enhanced security are made by store managers.

Fulford said she knew she could not let this rest.

“It’s very very upsetting. In this day and time — I’m really in a state of shock,” said Fulford, 54. “It’s unacceptable.”

African-American hair care products were the only hair care products in a locked case in the health and beauty products department at the Riverhead Walmart today. A sign above the case reads “Multicultural Hair Care.”

Many of the products in the locked case were inexpensive — less expensive than products on store shelves that are marketed to white people. Some were even priced under $1.

Other locked cases in the same department contained mens’ fragrances, women’s fragrances, small personal care appliances such as electric razors, trimmers and toothbrushes and, in one case, assorted energy-boosting and weight-loss products.

Walmart says decisions on which products are kept in locked cases are based on data, which the company declined to share.

“We serve more than 140 million customers weekly, crossing all demographics, and are focused on meeting their needs while providing the best shopping experience at each store,” the company said in a statement. “We’re sensitive to this situation and also understand, like other retailers, that some products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products are subject to additional security. Those determinations are made on a store-by-store basis using data supporting the need for the heightened measures.”

Fulford says it’s a case of blatant discrimination.

She is hoping to organize what she called a “blackout” — a boycott of the Riverhead Walmart in response to this policy.

“I want them to know that our money as a community is valuable.
Our money has power. That is the most important thing — because it does,” she said.

“I won’t rest until that lock comes off,” Fulford said today.

After Fulford posted about her experience on Facebook, calling for action from the community, Riverhead Town Councilwoman Catherine Kent contacted her. She and the co-chairperson of the town’s anti-bias task force, Connie Lassandro, went to Walmart to look into the matter.

“I thought we’d go in and they’d say they didn’t see it that way and rectify it,” Kent said. “But that’s not what happened.”

Lassandro said she is writing to Walmart to complain. “It’s offensive,” she said.

Kent said in meeting with Fulford, she could tell she wasn’t just angry but also very hurt. “You can feel the pain. We should all feel it,” she said. “When there’s injustice as a community we all have to pull together and support one another,” Kent said. “That’s what makes us stronger.”

Lucius Ware, president of the Eastern Long Island Branch of the NAACP said his organization is looking into the complaint and would seek to meet with Walmart representatives about it.

A lawsuit against Walmart is currently pending in federal district court in California, where three female plaintiffs are seeking damages against the company for locking African-American hair care products in glass cases. Attorney Gloria Allred brought the action in January 2018.

The lawsuit survived the company’s motion to dismiss the complaint and is scheduled for trial in 2020. In its motion to dismiss, Walmart argued that, because the glass barrier affects all shoppers equally, anyone who wishes to purchase African-American hair care products must get assistance from a clerk regardless of race or ethnicity. Therefore, the policy is neutral, Walmart reasoned.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.