Thursday, May 23, 2013
Responsible Retailing or Racial Profiling?
Fred Meyer says it was following APD's advice to not sell Nyquil to suspected inebriates
Was it responsible intervention or blatant racial profiling? One Anchorage man says a local Fred Meyer refused to sell him Nyquil because he is Alaska Native, but store managers say they were only following police advice. It’s an incident that's caused quite an uproar on Facebook in the Alaska Native Community when Willy Topkok wasn't allowed to buy his sick roommate cold medicine because the store manager said he’d had too much to drink. But Willy says the store is the one with the problem because he wasn't drinking and they made a wrong decision based on his race.
Willy Topkok is proud to be Inupiaq and loves sharing his culture through his job. During the days Topkok works as an artist at Black Elk Leather Beads and Stones, and usually ends his day with a trip to his favorite grocery store Fred Meyer. But that changed one Saturday in November when Willy says he wasn't allowed to buy a common product that's sold on the shelves. “The manager came in front of me and took my Nyquil away from me,” said Topkok. “I looked at him and said what is the matter, he says you had enough to drink, I said excuse me, I just got off work from Black Elk.” Willy was surprised. He says he's bought cold medicine many times before that. “I said could I see a manager I would like to make a complaint,” said Topkok “He said I am the store manager and I can refuse service to anybody walking into my store.” – something Fred Meyer management is not denying.
“Several years ago Anchorage Police has contacted us on several occasions and as a retailer asked us to make judgment calls regarding the sale of cough syrups and Listerine,” said Randy Mitchell, the store manager, for the Fred Meyer on Northern Lights. Mitchell says they've worked with law enforcement in the past after police said certain products caused problems on Anchorage streets. “In certain areas of town we find in homeless camps, just bottles and bottles, empty of bottles,” said Lt. Dave Parker, spokesman for Anchorage police. “Our officers from time to time in visiting the stores will encourage them to consider changing their eternal policies to put the alcohol bearing substances like Listerine behind the counter.”
But Willy says he's not part of the problem. He says what happened in November wouldn't have happened if he looked different. “He assumed I was a drunk native,” “I can not change the color of my hair, the color of my eyes, if I had blond hair, blue eyes he probably would not have done that to me.”
Now Fred Meyer wants to make some changes. From now on managers say they are taking the decision out of their cashier's hands. “Unfortunately its put the store in a situation where we are making judgment calls and in this case it kind of worked against us as far as our customers are concerned,” said Mitchell. “It really helped us understand that this was probably not the right thing to do for our customer and based off this incident we are not going to be doing that anymore.”
Willy says it's good news, because everyone deserves the right to shop. There is a resolution to Willy Topkok's incident as he says a couple of weeks later he got an apology from Fred Meyer management as well as a $50 gift card and a discount card. And Willy did end up getting the Nyquil that night from Carrs-Safeway. Spokespeople at Carrs-Safeway and Walmart say they don't think they have issues with inebriates buying Listerine or cough syrup and Fred Meyer wants to work with police and the city in training stores and employees on how to handle dealing with the issue in the future.