How important is cultural & religious sensitivity in retail?

With Easter, Ramadan and Passover just weeks away, how can retailers take advantage of being more inclusive of all religions and cultures - especially in a post-Covid world where demands for transparency and diversity are high?

Ramadan Diwali Easter Yom Kippur Christmas Chinese New Year tokenism covid-19 pandemic lockdown
21% of shoppers said they would switch to a retailer that reflects the importance of inclusion and diversity.

Expanding into new target markets is always an attractive proposition for UK retailers. Especially when, given its diversity, many cultural holidays are celebrated across country – like Ramadan, Diwali, Easter, Yom Kippur, Christmas, Eid, Passover or Lunar New Year.

Arguably, the differences in culture can present an additional barrier to success. But retailers may need to learn from past mistakes in order to capitalise on the many religious and cultural events this year – in a way that isn’t tokenistic.

Shoppers are no doubt drawn to businesses that are conscious, inclusive and reflective of the society that they function within, and in the advent of Covid-19 there is an increasing demand in more transparency from retailers on knowing where their food came from or how it was prepared, or how their clothes were produced.

A 2019 report by Accenture found that 10 per cent of customers have shifted away from a retailer that does not reflect how important inclusivity and diversity is to them. Meanwhile, 21 per cent of shoppers would likely switch to a retailer that reflects the importance they place on the subject.

With many holidays being cancelled last year, retailers such as Tesco and Asda still continued to roll out campaigns and offers that catered to the UK’s cultural and religious diversity.

However, Tesco faced backlash during last year’s Ramadan after its Not Quite Aunty’s Sumac Chicken advert – which was created as part of Tesco’s Food Love Stories series – had advertised halal meat.

Hoards of disgruntled shoppers took to Twitter to proclaim they would “boycott” the Big 4 grocer for daring to advertise halal meat.


While the Advertising Standards Authority has put a stop to further action, the backlash highlights an underlying bias against halal advertising, and a misunderstanding of what it means for Muslim people.

Yet that advert proved that retailers trying to be more inclusive can often be a double-edged sword.

For example, back in 2017, Tesco was criticised for not selling halal turkey in stores following its Christmas campaign which featured a Muslim family getting together to celebrate the holiday.

In the minute-long advert, it featured 14 families celebrating Christmas. In one scene, three Muslim women and a young child embrace each other in a tinsel-decorated house with a wreath hanging on the front door.

Viewers took to social media to say they were boycotting Tesco for including Muslims in a Christmas TV advert.

Initially, it seemed commendable of the grocer for representing Britain in all its diversity. But critics slammed Tesco for being tokenistic and not actually producing halal turkey for Muslim customers.

Spotlighting families who happened to be Black has also presented as an issue for many retailers, whether it’s in campaigns or the boardroom.

Most recently, Sainsbury’s was forced to defend itself after it was met with calls for a boycott from customers who were furious about a Black family featured in the first of its three-part series of Christmas adverts last year.

The advert in question, called Gravy Song, focused on a father and daughter’s excitement and memories around Christmas, and how it gets them talking about his gravy and his “famous” gravy song.

With retailers facing backlash for releasing more inclusive ads and campaigns, it begs the questions: How can they consider cultural and religious sensitivity as major holidays take place later this year? Do retailers stand to benefit from celebrating more of the UK’s religious and cultural diversity – not just Easter and Christmas?

“From a business perspective any retailer showcasing a particular event will draw more people in for a special occasion purchase,” said Rich Miles, chief executive and co-founder of The Diversity Standards Collective.

“Christmas and Easter is a prime example but by marketing more cultural and religious events you can replicate that enhanced turnover three or four times a year.

“Everyone likes to shop – it’s a human thing, not a cultural thing. By marketing these occasions in shops you’re not forcing everyone to celebrate them, but you’re giving the option to a large number of people to whom it is a very important and significant event.”

Although retailers are increasingly acknowledging a more diverse set of holidays and customers, diversity does not stop at marketing campaigns.

Arguably, staff diversity is paramount when delivering an inclusive retail environment for customers. Just today, more than 50 of the UK’s leading retailers pledged to improve their diversity and inclusion (D&I) following findings that representation of women and ethnic minorities in the UK retail sector “falls well short”.

According to a report by the BRC, 81 per cent of the largest British retailers have all-white boards and 68 per cent have no ethnic minority leadership on their executive committees. Looking at the full spectrum of UK retail, the report added that just 4.5 per cent of board members, 5.8 per cent of executive committees and six per cent of direct reports to boards are from an ethnic minority background compared to 12.5 per cent of the UK population.

However, while 84 per cent of retailers said D&I was a priority, less than half (49 per cent) of retail employees said is sufficiently high up their employers’ agenda. Nonetheless, retailers who signed the pledged agreed that there was “much to be done” to improve D&I across the sector. The pledge included appointing D&I executives, supporting career opportunities for all and creating respectful and inclusive work environments.

“Retail revolves around the customer, and to serve the needs of a diverse country we need a diversity of ideas, experiences and backgrounds across our businesses,” BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said.

“Cultural and religious sensitivity is incredibly important and even more so in a post-Covid world”

Following the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests around the world last year, retailers of every size released statements of solidarity for the movement. Marks & Spencer chief executive Steve Rowe pledged to take “urgent action” to address racism and diversity in the wake of BLM, while John Lewis Partnership chair Dame Sharon White said the retailer was having “an open and honest debate” with its staff to improve the profile of the business.

The partnership went on to launch a Black partner advisory group last October to review the inclusivity of fashion amid Black History Month. The parent company of John Lewis and Waitrose also announced a series of actions aimed at building a more inclusive company, such as working with staff from under-represented backgrounds to create a new D&I strategy, and set associated targets.

A 2019 report by Green Park, called the Leadership 10,000, found that the number of BAME directors and non-executive directors on FTSE 100 retail boards increased by five per cent, up from 3.1 per cent in 2018 – an increase of just 4.3 per cent since 2014. The report also found that 47 of the FTSE 100 companies have no ethnic minority representation at board or executive director level.

Miles said authenticity was crucial with any attempt at D&I, and that retailers should give their staff training.

“Ideally, if budget allows, retailers would extend this education with some form of community-driven events – they should be thinking about the whole circle rather than just their bottom line,” he told Retail Gazette.

Meanwhile Suki Sandhu, chief executive of executive search firm Audeliss, said retailers needed to be careful of appearing tokenistic when being more culturally inclusive.

“Cultural and religious sensitivity is incredibly important and will be even more so in a post-Covid world where employees and consumers look to work for, or purchase from,” she said.

“It’s essential to understand that true inclusion happens when policies are entrenched across the entire organisation and not filtered out in tokenistic gestures.

“Solutions such as diversifying senior leadership teams and implementing strategies that support diverse talent, are just some ways that a business can be inclusive in a way that is genuine and long-term.

“To drive inclusivity, you should create an environment in which each individual can be themselves.

“Open up conversations about religion in the workplace to signal to employees that they can authentically speak about their culture and beliefs.

“This can encourage a wider range of perspectives to be shared, amplifying the voices and experiences of individuals across all levels of the business, and can be a vital first step in ensuring that your business is committed to being inclusive.”

Evidently, there is no quick fix to becoming a retail leader in inclusivity and diversity, but retailers can learn from past mistakes. The approach must be holistic, not half-hearted. It must be sustained, not short-lived. And more importantly, how they present themselves in marketing campaigns must also translate in all levels of their workforce.

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  1. Retailers should be wary of succumbing to the demands of tiny but vocal pressure groups that are always looking to be offended.
    A vegan complaining about a meat shop saying, “Everyone is welcome “.


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