Advertisement

For some shoppers, politics play into buying decisions

Growing ranks of consumers select brands and retailers based on whether they appear to lean conservative or liberal and shun those that take stands opposed to their beliefs.

Elaine Blackman stopped shopping at her beloved Nordstrom after learning the retailer sold Ivanka Trump's fashion line, joining an organized boycott.

"It was because of what the brand stands for," she said. "As long as they carry Trump brands and products, I won't shop there."

Advertisement

The 65-year-old retired federal worker from Burtonsville likes to think her actions made a difference. Nordstrom dropped the line earlier this year, citing weak sales, and Blackman has resumed shopping at its stores.

But Nordstrom's decision to dump the brand created by President Donald Trump's daughter struck a nerve in Michelle Kissling, who went to Amazon and Lord & Taylor, and bought Ivanka perfume and earrings, two pair of shoes and a coat.

"Politics should be left out of the stores," the Severn woman said.

Blackman and Kissling may be worlds apart in their political beliefs, but in a divided nation they're on the same page in one way — how they decide where to shop. The two women are among the growing ranks of consumers who choose retailers and brands based on their apparent political leaning and shun those that conflict with their beliefs.

Companies that support one side or another, even indirectly, have felt the sting of consumer boycotts. Dozens have cropped up since last year's presidential campaign.

The Grab Your Wallet movement, which was behind the Nordstorm boycott, urges consumers to avoid Macy's, L.L. Bean, Bloomingdale's, Zappos, Amazon, Hudson Bay and T.J. Maxx, among others, and suggests consumers tell the stores they oppose doing business with the Trump family. The campaign also blacklists advertisers on the show "Celebrity Apprentice," which Trump hosted, and firms whose leaders back Trump.

The American Family Association has gathered pledges from 1.5 million people to boycott Target in protest of the retailer's policy allowing people to use restrooms based on personal gender identity. Both J.C. Penney and Land's End ousted their CEOs in recent years, decisions observers attribute partly to conservative ire after marketing campaigns that endorsed pro-gay or pro-choice positions.

And Baltimore-based Under Armour found itself in the cross hairs after founder Kevin Plank praised the president's pro-business philosophy during a CNBC interview last month.

Anti-Trump consumers quickly criticized the remarks, as some called for a boycott while pro-Trump shoppers vowed to buy more of the Baltimore firm's athletic apparel.

The company issued statements stressing its desire for fair trade and an inclusive immigration policy, saying it opposes the administration's travel ban, which seemed to quiet the boycott calls.

Consumer boycotts have been used for decades to pressure companies to change policies, such as a high-profile campaign against Nike in the 1990s to protest allegations of sweatshop labor. But experts see differences in the recent wave.

"We've seen a real explosion of boycotts on both sides of the political issues today," said Brayden King, a professor of management at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management who has studied boycotts. "It seems to be fomented by the present administration, which is unprecedented.

"It's unheard of that the president of the United States would make comments that would encourage people to engage in a boycott," said King, referring to the president's post on Twitter about Nordstrom's decision to stop carrying Ivanka Trump's line.

A boycott's effectiveness often depends on how much media attention it attracts. Today that can mean generating traffic through social media, King said.

Advertisement

Tracie McElroy began following Grab Your Wallet through Twitter late last year. The 45-year-old Catonsville resident deleted the Uber app on her phone and added a Boycott Trump app. She checks it for Trump connections before spending any money.

"We can use the power of how we spend our money, and collectively that can make a big impact and maybe lead to some policy change," McElroy said.

Eva Rausch, a 39-year-old from Bel Air, now drives to the store for shampoo and paper towels instead of ordering the products on Amazon. She also stopped shopping at Wegmans, citing a boycott related to its sale of Trump-branded wine.

"Nothing would make my heart gladder than to keep buying cheese from Wegmans, but I can't do that with a clear conscience," she said. "It probably hurts me more than them."

Consumers say they are contributing to a cause they believe in by participating in boycotts, but in reality businesses typically change practices amidst consumer backlash to protect their reputation, not because they've lost sales, King said. When Chick-fil-A faced a boycott after an executive's comments opposing same-sex marriage, other activists supported the chain and sales never suffered, he said. But the company still took steps to repair its reputation.

"Political boycotts are very much like physics: For every action there is an equal reaction," said Fred Taub, president of Cleveland-based Boycott Watch. "Whenever a boycott is based on [politics], you are going to have an equal reaction back. Someone is going to say, 'They're boycotting this. I like this. Therefore, I'll buy more of it.'"

Taub, who advises companies, said one of the biggest mistakes is getting involved in "hot button" political issues.

"You're going to upset 50 percent of the audience no matter what you do," he said. "It's never good."

Some campaigns end up more talk than action. That's because it's hard for consumers to change habits and shift loyalties, said Rebecca Trump, an assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University of Maryland's Sellinger School of Business and no relation to the president. Sometimes, she added, those participating in a boycott never patronized the targeted company in the first place.

"It might help your brand to be boycotted by people who aren't your loyal consumers if the reasons they're boycotting reinforce the values that are important to your loyal consumers," she said.

Some of those leading recent campaigns remain convinced of their effectiveness.

The American Family Association's boycott of Target contributed to the disappointing earnings the retailer announced late last month, said Walker Wildmon, assistant to the group's president.

For the businesses targeted by Grab Your Wallet, "it's naive to think they can get involved with a divisive ... figure and have it not come back on their brands," said Shannon Coulter, a marketing agency owner who started the movement with a grandmother from California during the presidential campaign.

After Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump's line, the retailer responded to the conservative backlash by saying the decision was based on declining sales, part of regular review of thousands of brands it sells.

The move infuriated Cheryl Lewandowski, a consulting company manager who often buys designer clothes and shoes at Nordstrom. Views expressed by executives at Uber and Starbucks have turned her off to those brands, too.

Advertisement

"I don't appreciate companies shoving their ideologies down my throat," said Lewandowski, 49, of Caldwell, N.J. "It's bullying behavior, punishing the daughter because you don't like her father. It's disgusting to me. I cut up my Nordstrom card.

"I don't need companies telling me how I should feel, where I should shop and who I should vote for," she said.

When a boycott flares, some companies overreact rather than waiting to see if it blows overs, Taub said.

He would have advised Nordstrom to "hang tight" and tell customers "we don't play favorites politically," which is the approach taken by Wegman's at its Virginia stores that carry wines from Trump Winery. The Trump wine is among more than 200 wines from dozens of Virginia wineries sold in those stores.

If shoppers refuse to buy a product and that leads to a sales decrease, the grocer will discontinue it, the company said. But since the start of the boycott, the Wegmans' Virginia stores have sold out of Trump wine and plan to restock it.

"Our role as a retailer is to offer choice to our customers," the grocer's statement said. "How a product performs is our single measure for what stays on our shelves and what goes."

It remains to be seen whether shoppers remain committed to current boycotts and whether they have the intended effects, King said.

"People are polarized and highly motivated to do something," he said. "Pro-Trump and anti-Trump both feel under attack, and it may increase the extent to which they are mobilized to express themselves publicly. It may be the case where they do follow through."

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

Advertisement
Advertisement