Lifestyle / Opinion

Sephora accused of anti-Asian discrimination

Sephora, a multi-billion dollar company that sells cosmetics, fragrances, skin care, and body care products, blocked a lot of accounts that have Asian domains or Asian last names during its annual sale in November. The reason the company gave was suspicion that some Asian purchasers were actually resellers who were buying massive amounts of product at a discount and then reselling them at a higher price. Therefore, the company blocked Asian customers’ accounts during the sale. In response, four people filed a class action lawsuit against the company on November 19. I may be joining their number soon.

Sephora started a 20 percent sale that was available to “VIB Rouge,” the highest level of Sephora’s membership, on November 5, 2014. On the next day, as the sale opened up to also include “VIB,” a lower status of membership, Sephora’s website crashed due to the high volume of traffic. As a result, the company decided to deactivate some accounts, including my own.

I tried to reach out to the Customer Service two times on November 6, and neither agent was able to provide reasonable explanation; in addition, neither one even tried to apologize. On November 7, I went on to Sephora’s Facebook homepage and was surprised to see that many Asian people were confronting the same issue. Shockingly, as complaintAuQo4Uus started accumulating on Weibo, a Chinese social media network, and on Sephora’s Facebook page and Twitter, it became more and more evident that most of the people who had their accounts blocked were either registered with their legal Chinese names or with an email address that had an Asian domain. I myself had both “qualifications.”

Later on that day, Sephora emailed and posted a statement on Facebook, saying that the company blocked accounts “due to reselling […] in order to optimize product availability for the majority of [its] clients.” After seeing this explanation, I called the newly established VIB hotline to check on my account status; without asking for my email address, the agent told me directly that “Currently, we are not reactivating any account.” And when I tried to explain that I was not a reseller, and in fact, I did not even place an order but only attempted to log in, the agent said that the Business Department had made the decision to deactivate my account, and the decision was final.

Consequently, people who had called the hotline were even more irritated than before. I think that, even if Sephora agreed to reactivate my account, it would not solve the essential issue, which is that it blocked a lot of international customers, mostly Chinese, out of an intent to discriminate. After consulting with Ms. Alexandra Siemon, a Social Studies teacher, and one of her daughters, Anna, who is a lawyer, I decided to file a complaint against Sephora at the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination, based on the following two reasons:

  • I did not receive any notice in any form before Sephora locked my account. Sephora failed to explain how it determined my account to be suspicious. In fact, Sephora has full access to all my personal information, such as previous orders and mailing address, which would help them establish a basic screening. However, it seemed that Sephora did not choose to do so, because I have purchased less than ten items in the past year and am thus clearly not a reseller. Therefore, Sephora’s decision did not meet the “reasonable suspicion.”
  • As a seller, Sephora has no right to interfere with how its costumers deal with the products after it has sold them. The illegal action of reselling itself, because it involves the issue of tax evasion, is the responsibility of importing and exporting countries’ customs, not that of Sephora. It is undeniable that there are many resellers and opportunists, and yet if Sephora really suspects certain accounts or individuals, it should go through legal investigation, instead of blocking a lot of Asian accounts.

Sephora could have simply avoided bulk purchases by restricting numbers of items per account, but not only the company did not put on limitation, it also allowed unlimited use of the 20 percent off coupon. Deactivating accounts does not necessarily mean discrimination, and yet treating its costumers unfairly and failing to provide reasonable explanation are. I’m not inclined to say it was racism, though, since it depends on to what extent Sephora was reckless. On November 12, a man in New York created a Weibo account called “Rise_Against_Sephora,” announcing that he had contacted his lawyer to file a class action lawsuit against Sephora. I’m keeping in touch with him to share the information he has gathered to make my own complaint more valid and convincing.

Images: Screenshots by Letitia Zhang of Sephora’s blocked accounts on the company’s webpage and of social media complaints about blocked accounts by Asian customers.

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