The role of online shopping as a mechanism to navigate racial discrimination

Online platforms are useful, additional channels to acquire products and services. For instance, online supermarkets have been lifelines for people isolating at home because of COVID-19. Online platforms are also great channels to talk with firms and other customers, be it as a form of acquiring information, solving problems or, simply, getting emotional support.

FB algorithm

What I had never realised, though, is that online platforms can also be valued means of navigating discrimination.


Akon E. Ekpo, Benét DeBerry-Spence, Geraldine Rosa Henderson and Joseph Cherian co-authored the paper “Narratives of technology consumption in the face of marketplace discrimination”, published in Marketing Letters. The paper, which can be found here, investigates the experiences of marketplace discrimination of African American consumers, using interviews and discussion boards. Ekpo and her team found that digital technology can help these consumers navigate situations of discrimination, in three ways.


  1. Reducing the risk of discrimination – If customers anticipate that they may face discrimination, they will collect information ahead of the consumption experience, to try and reduce the likelihood of being discriminated against. For instance, customers may read customer reviews or product information to help them select providers or options less likely to cause problems. Alternatively, they may seek advice to help them prepare for such a situation (e.g., learn where or how to complain).
  2. Navigating discrimination – When they are actually faced with a situation of discrimination, customers may use digital technology to exit the frustrating interaction. For instance, if the customer feels that the sales assistant is not making enough effort to solve a problem (such as checking product availability), they may use their internet enabled devices to check the information online, themselves. Ekpo and her team also reported the case of one customer who was unhappy with the service that she was receiving, and used her phone to check product availability at a competing store (which she later visited, in order to acquire the product).
  3. Avoiding discrimination – Finally, some customers may simply withdraw from offline interactions, so that they don’t need to keep dealing with offensive behaviours. For instance, they may be tired of being stereotyped by sales assistant, of feeling under surveillance by security officers, or even being subjected to degrading service. So, they will buy online or use online services (e.g., online banking), by default.


While digital technology may assist with dealing with discrimination, these options are not without costs. For instance, one participant mentioned the hassle of not being home to receive the deliveries. Another mentioned the uncertainty about the suitability of the item being ordered, because they did not have a chance to see it in the store. Moreover, some customers may not be comfortable with the technology. Finally, as noted by the authors, “online shopping requires credit/banking which may exclude socioeconomically disadvantaged consumers” (page 461).


These findings are important for online and offline players, alike.


For online players, this paper points to an additional motivation to use online channels, and this has an impact on what customers value in their interaction with the firm. The usual motivations mentioned in the literature mean that customers value choice, cost savings, and convenience. However, this paper suggests a new driver: offsetting negative offline experiences. This means that these customers are likely to value speed and customer service, over and above price or choice.


In turn, offline players need to make sure that customers feel welcomed in their stores, restaurants, etc… They need to hire a diverse frontline workforce, and they need to invest in anti-discrimination training. They also need to ensure that customers can access information (e.g., customer reviews or company communications) that reassures them that they will have a pleasant experience. The authors also suggest introducing technology in the store, as a way of giving customers more control of the experience, and minimising the “ambiguity that often comes with offline/brick-and-mortar interactions that discriminated consumers experience” (p. 461). For instance, technology that enables customers to check store inventory.


Beyond the specific findings about how this group of customers use online technology, this paper also illustrates a hard truth: it is very hard to see what we don’t look for. If most of us making marketing decisions don’t experience (racial or other form of) discrimination, we fail to see the challenges that those customers face in the marketplace. Consequently, we fail to address their needs… and we miss on market opportunities. In other words: How do we make sure that we are attentive to the lived experiences of people that face very different realities from ours?


[I am trying to learn more about – and to amplify – work done by non-White authors. If you have come across a paper by non-White authors or, specially, by Black authors, at the intersection of technology and marketing (particularly, in service settings), please share it with me.]

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