With all of the recent talks about systemic racism and overall efforts to eradicate it, one unlikely front is emerging in the struggle for racial justice – the shelves of retail stores.
Africans Americans make up about 15 percent of the US population, but black-owned businesses account for less than half of one percent of retail sales through American grocery stores. This statistic is all the more astonishing as the purchasing power of US blacks is approaching $ 1.5 trillion. Equally important, there are innumerable black-owned companies that represent everything from baked goods to fresh produce and are ready to put their products on those shelves.
Currently, there is not a single black-owned grocery brand that has achieved widespread or national adoption, although large grocers have pledged over the years to grow and diversify their suppliers.
Maybe this time will be different. Since the death of George Floyd and subsequent protests across the nation and around the world, dozens of grocery retailers have not only spoken out against racism, but have donated millions of dollars to organizations that promote racial diversity and inclusion like the NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Urban League.
Retail giant Walmart said the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company and its Walmart Foundation would provide $ 100 million to help create a new center for racial justice. Amazon, the owner of Whole Foods, has pledged $ 10 million to Black Lives Matter and other groups. Target again donated $ 10 million and offered 10,000 hours of free counseling to Minneapolis companies that killed Floyd to help them “rebuild”.
Ahold Delhaize, a Netherlands-based company that operates more than 2,000 stores in 23 states, including Hannaford and Stop & Shop in New England, has pledged $ 5 million to “work towards racial equality.” Ahold Delhaize CEO Frans Muller’s public statements are typical of industry leadership during the recent racist turmoil.
“These events make it clear to us again that we as a global retailer play a central role in society,” said Müller. “We have a great responsibility to set the right example and to help dismantle structures that systematically disadvantage some and favor others.”
These contributions to civil rights organizations are certainly required to support the struggle for equality and fairness, but these retailers seem to have overlooked an important group – the illicit companies that market products and sell them to the grocery retailer.
This is about a lot more than just putting some products on a few shelves. It’s about building black wealth – not through well-intentioned diversity efforts, but by creating a solid path to market. It’s about opening the door and giving products a fair chance of success.
Many black-owned company products are bought by shoppers for special holidays like Thanksgiving or Black History Month and are not kept in stock regularly. Most of the resistance occurs at the procurement level, which all too often are more interested in hunting suburban dollars in suburban neighborsods. The lack of consideration is especially painful for many black retailers who spend countless hours and countless dollars making phone calls, sending emails, attending industry trade shows, and distributing brochures – with little chance of getting a deal.
While the national conversation on police brutality and reforms is badly needed and long overdue, another conversation is urgently needed on the challenges black entrepreneurs face, including lack of access to capital and representation on the shelves of large grocery retailers.
For the past few weeks, Aurora has been James, founder of Brooklyn-based SustaiThe fashionable Brother Vellies brand has asked major retailers to dedicate 15% of their shelf space to black-owned companies. The percentage is in line with the latest estimates by the Census Bureau that blacks make up nearly 15% of the United States’ population.
Making the promise would not be just a one-off response to heightened awareness of systematic racism.
It’s a smart business.
While online shopping is increasing in all population groups, blacks continue to buy the lion’s share of their consumer goods in brick and mortar stores. Black purchasing power is set to grow to $ 1.8 trillion by 2024, and that growth is outpacing white purchasing power. Between 2000 and 2018, black purchasing power increased 114%, compared to an 89% increase in white purchasing power. And when it comes to grocery shopping, Black’s weekly grocery purchases are more than 15 percent higher than any other ethnic group.
Unfortunately, these statistics are well known across the industry. At this critical point in history, the time has come to build the infrastructure for black people’s growing wealth, and grocery retailers are in a unique position to do so.
Wiley Mullins is the founder of Uncle Wiley’s Specialty Foods, Inc.