MANHATTAN (CN) – Amid public backlash against racially biased “stop-and-frisk” police practices, “Sephora has brazenly taken” so-called “shop and frisk” to the Internet, four woman claim in a federal class action.
The allegations come after the beauty retailer blamed “excessive online traffic” for bringing down its website on Nov. 6 during the annual 20-percent-off sale for Sephora’s most loyal shoppers.
Like travelers with mileage rewards, Sephora’s “Beauty Insiders” can accumulate points with every purchase that give them certain benefits.
Lead plaintiff Xiao Xiao says that customers in the premium level of Sephora’s program are called Very Important Beauty, or VIB, insiders. They acquire membership by spending at least $350 in a calendar year.
There is an even more exclusive level, called VIB Rouge, for customers who spend at least $1,000 in a calendar year, according to the complaint.
Xiao says it was during a special five-day sale event for these VIB and VIB Rouge shoppers that the website crashed.
In a statement on its Facebook page the next morning after service was restored, Sephora warned that it was cracking down on the gaming of its client-loyalty program.
“We have, indeed, de-activated accounts due to reselling – a pervasive issue throughout the industry and the world,” the still-active Facebook post says.
Xiao and three other shoppers of Chinese descent say they are some of the “thousands” whom Sephora bumped solely because their names or email addresses look Asian.
“Shockingly,” Sephora honed in email addresses with Asian-sounding names, and blocked Chinese and other Asian web domains such as qq.com, 126.com and 163.com, according to the complaint.
Yet, more than 95 percent of deactivated accounts belong to customers in the United States, the women say.
“These customers were not ‘bulk buyers’ or entities involved in ‘retail re-selling’ of Sephora products,” the complaint states. “Rather, they were predominately individuals, many making cosmetic purchases between $350 and $999 in a calendar year who did not even qualify for the highest tier of membership, VIB Rouge.”
Even basic-tier “Beauty Insiders” allegedly found their accounts blocked.
“Clearly, customers who failed to purchase even $350 worth of items in a calendar year were not involved in ‘bulk purchases’ or retail re-sales of Sephora products,” the 28-page complaint states.
So-called “shop and frisk,” in which retailers discriminate against minority shoppers, has become something of a media sensation, according to the complaint.
Xiao says “Sephora has brazenly taken this practice to the Internet.”
The deactivation of accounts belonging to customers “of perceived Chinese/Asian descent [is] based on the ill-founded and discriminatory belief that all Chinese/Asian customers abuse discount sales to engage in bulk purchasing for re-sale,” the complaint states.
Xiao, a Manhattanite, says a federal judge should order Sephora to pay the class punitive damages for the loss of their rewards points, and for the “humiliation” that its actions caused.
The class also alleges equal-rights violations and breach of contract. It is represented by Jeanne Christensen of Imbesi Christensen and Douglas Wigdor.
In an email statement, Sephora said that the lawsuit “significantly distorts the facts in this matter.”
“We look forward to defending our actions in court,” Sephora said. “Among other points, we intend to make very clear that clients from a number of countries around the world have been impacted by a temporary block we needed to place on accounts in order to restore the functionality of our site during a surge of activity by resellers during a promotional event two weeks ago.”
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