It’s been a rough few months for America’s largest lingerie retailer. In November, after Victoria’s Secret’s jaw-dropping annual fashion show, the company was forced to apologize to Native American communities for its decision to send a model out onto the runway clad in bikini underwear and a Native American headdress. Thousands of people visited the VS Facebook page to complain.
Last week the retailer was forced to offer a mea culpa again after an employee in its store in the upscale Domain Shopping Center in Austin, Texas, told a nursing mother to breast-feed her child in the alley.
Ashley Clawson said that after she had finished paying for some purchases at the store on Jan. 13, she asked if she could use the store’s dressing room to feed her son, who was crying. She said she asked for permission in order to be polite to other patrons in the store and was told by one of the employees that she wasn’t allowed to breast feed her child in their store. The employee suggested she take her son to the back of the alley and feed him there.
“You want me to take my son outside, down an alley, and nurse him?” Clawson asked, dumfounded. She said the clerk answered, “Yes.”
The young mother opted instead to take her son to a restroom stall in another location and feed him there.
This instance could easily be chalked up to a case of poor discretion on the part of the staff (and incidentally, an ignorance of federal and state law protections for nursing mothers), if it weren’t for what followed next. Clawson said when she got home she called VS’s customer service and reported the incident. By then she had educated herself on state and federal laws and knew that Texas was one of 45 states that has laws protecting the right of nursing mothers to breast-feed in public. She said she talked with the representative for a half hour, and hung up with the impression that the matter would be straightened out.
“He said he filed the complaint and they would be in touch. However, the next day, when I called them back, there was no record of my complaint,” said Clawson. Subsequent attempts to reach a manager and to file a complaint went unheeded as well.
Finally, Clawson said she called the store where the incident had occurred and spoke with the manager. The supervisor confirmed the story with the employees on staff and apologized, offering to send her “something” for her troubles. She also wrote VS CEO Sharon Jester Turney, but said that as of Jan. 20, had yet to hear back from either the supervisor or Turney.
What’s interesting is that although VS apparently spoke with local Fox television station KTBC-TV to clear up and apologize for the event (and that information was later copied and recopied by other news organizations), the company doesn’t appear to have posted any record of the apology or what it’s done about the confusion on its website. Perhaps some would say that’s not necessary, since VS did own up to the mistake to the news camera. But many business authorities point out that the first step in handling a PR problem is to apologize – fast! – and the second thing is to act on it publicly so that customers, (including the offended party) can see that the error was just a bad day in the office and shouldn’t be construed as a corporate image problem.
At this point, however, customers may be asking whether Victoria’s Secret has really taken the pulse of its customer base lately and understands the sensitivities of today’s multicultural world. Unfortunately, pundits haven’t missed the opportunity to poke fun at the “irony” of VS’s support for buxom beauty and its seeming oversight that nurturing another life, whether in public or behind a curtain, is still just as awe-inspiring.
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