The president of Nordstrom Rack flew to St. Louis to apologize on Tuesday to three black friends who were falsely accused last week of trying to steal clothing at one of the company’s stores.
The teenage friends had stopped into a Nordstrom Rack in suburban St. Louis on Thursday to look for last-minute deals before a high school prom on Friday night. Two employees followed them throughout the store, closely monitoring their every move, and reported them to the police.
“Every time we moved, they moved,” Mekhi Lee, 19, told KMOV-TV in St. Louis on Tuesday. When they left the store — carrying items they had just purchased — police officers were waiting for them outside.
For many minorities, what happened at Nordstrom Rack illustrated a disheartening everyday truth about racial discrimination in the United States, where merely entering a store is enough to draw suspicions. The experiences are not new, but the rise of cellphone video has helped highlight recent cases, including the arrest of two black men last month at a Starbucks in Philadelphia.
The episodes can also quickly morph into disastrous situations for companies, spurred by bad employees in one store whose actions are caught on video and risk blemishing an entire organization’s reputation.
Executives at Nordstrom heard about the encounter later on Thursday. The next day, the company’s president, Geevy Thomas, called and apologized to Mr. Lee, a freshman at Alabama A&M University, and the other men, Dirone Taylor and Eric Rogers, both seniors at De Smet Jesuit High School, a private school in St. Louis County.
“We did not handle this situation well, and we apologized to these young men and their families,” a Nordstrom Rack spokeswoman said in a statement. “We want all customers to feel welcome when they shop with us and we do not tolerate discrimination of any kind.”
The company is investigating the actions of its employees during the episode.
The men could not immediately be reached for comment on Tuesday.
Mr. Thomas and other Nordstrom officials flew to St. Louis on Monday and met with store employees on Tuesday morning to discuss what happened. Later on Tuesday, Mr. Thomas was scheduled to meet with the men, their families and local leaders, including Adolphus M. Pruitt II, the president of the St. Louis chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
Mr. Pruitt, who met with the friends after the episode, said that both the police and the men handled the situation perfectly. Inside the store, as the two employees were following them, the friends debated leaving but decided they would buy some items to show that the employees had been wrong, that they were not stealing and that they had money to spend, he said.
When the police arrived, the men cooperated with the officers, showed them their receipts and let them look inside their shopping bags and car, he said. The officers stressed that they were called out only because an employee had called 911.
The police realized they were not thieves and let them go.
“They allowed them to tell their side of the story, and the police told their side of the story,” Mr. Pruitt said on Tuesday. “In today’s day in time, it is remarkable. If we can get that to repeat itself as much as possible, boy, it would make my job easier.”
While Mr. Pruitt said he was disappointed by the employees at the store, he said he was encouraged by the company’s response. “It does demonstrate that they are reacting in the right way,” he said, comparing its response to that of Starbucks after the arrest in Philadelphia.
But he added that the recent cases underscored the need for employees to receive racial-bias training, which Starbucks will conduct on one day later this month for workers in more than 8,000 stores in the United States. Nordstrom has been reviewing its employee policies and considering changes to training at both its department stores and Nordstrom Rack, its discount shops.
“Black children — black teenagers and black males, especially — are looked at this way at retail stores all across the country,” Mr. Pruitt said. “What are they going to do that goes beyond employees at one store?”
Bryant Marks, a social psychologist at Morehouse College and a founder of the National Training Institute on Race and Equity, said that company executives had quickly understood that they must react swiftly to these cases.
“Corporate leadership will continue to have a rapid response to these incidences as to not appear to be tone deaf regarding race and bias in America,” Mr. Marks, who trains groups on implicit bias, said in an email. “This is somewhat of a wake-up call for large corporations. I say somewhat because the vast majority of them have diversity officers or units already in place, but in my experience, I find those units to be underfunded and their work to be low priority.”