Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn accused of racism in client profiles

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. Albert Heijn in Holten (Picture: Wikimedia Commons/Tukka)

Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn is facing criticism about client profiles that new employees have to learn. The profiles include a black woman with a child to represent clients who buy cheaper products, and a white man as a "Premium client". The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights and a number of anti-discrimination organizations call the profiles stigmatizing and stereotypical, NOS reports.

New employees of the supermarket have to follow a number of online courses before starting work, including these client profiles. The profiles are meant to teach employees to recognize the different 'types' of customers and their buying behavior. The profiles state in which areas each 'type' of customer lives, how much money they have to spend, and what type of products they tend to buy.

Albert Heijn calls customers who buy mainly cheaper products "City Budget" customers. The picture on this profile is that of a black woman and her child. The profile states that these customers can be found across the Netherlands. They have one- or two person households with below average income and visit the store between 5:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. throughout the week. "Deli cheese, non-food and fresh produce are bought less often, while bread products, frozen and New Dutch assortment are purchased more often", the profile states. The profile specifically names tropical soft drink Fernandes and Yum Yum noodles as products City Budget customers like to buy.

On the other side of the income spectrum is the "Premium" customer, showing a gray-haired white man with glasses. According to the profile, this type of client more often buys fresh produce, cheese and wine, and less often bread products and frozen products. Biological brands, Emmi cheese, Lindt chocolate and "luxurious" wine Brancott are named as products Premium customers like to buy. 

According to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights these profiles are not in violation of discrimination laws, but they are stigmatizing. "We are not in favor of linking characteristics to groups", Barbara Bos of the Institute said to NOS. "You stick a label to people and although this is not legally forbidden, the question is whether you should want this as a company."

Anti-discrimination organizations Radar Rotterdam, Art 1 Midden-Nederland and the discrimination hotline Amsterdam region MDRA also criticized the profiles to NOS. "It is ethic profiling. A large retail company also has a social responsibility, everyone has to think about how you represent something", MDRA director Lucienne Gena said. "It's not that complicated, it is stereotypical. You can not link poverty to a skin color."

"It is possible that the course encourages prejudice", Alexander Hoortsman of Art 1 said. "Even if Albert Heijn does not give explicit instructions in the customer profiles, the images and texts may have an unconscious influence on the behavior of its employees."

"It is generalizing and it does not testify to a contemporary perspective on diversity", Radar Rotterdam commented.

In a written reaction Albert Heijn stated that the customer profiles are intended to adapt the assortment in the stores to the type of customers that visit particular stores, the Volkskrant reports. A branch that has many wealthy customers can adjust its assortment and store presentation accordingly. This also applies to Albert Heijn stores in poorer neighborhoods. The supermarket also removed the customer profiles following questions from the newspaper. "Apparently the image used creates an undesirable impression", a spokesperson said to the newspaper. "We will take a critical look at it and adjust the profiles."

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