Political Shopping: Shoppers weigh boycott calls as buying becomes more political

By Michael Rubinkam
and Anne D’Innocenzio

Associated Press

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Stormy Patterson makes a distinction between opinion and action as she surveys each new call to boycott Company A or support Brand B.

It’s “silly” to penalize Under Armour over its CEO’s praise of President Donald Trump, she says. Far more important is how a company behaves toward its customers or employees, especially if it has an impact on their rights.

“Hobby Lobby, I won’t patronize them. I won’t touch them. And I actually used to go there like once a week,” said Patterson, who opposes the chain’s refusal to pay for some kinds of birth control for its employees.

Long before Trump slammed Nordstrom for dropping his daughter’s clothing and accessories line — spurring the president’s supporters to call for a boycott of the department store — politically active consumers have used their purchasing power strategically. They could punish brands with which they disagreed, and reward those whose views aligned with theirs.

In the polarized Trump era, the simple act of buying a drink or shoes has never seemed so political. Social media makes it easier than ever for activists and consumers to target or defend stores and brands that take a stand or those they see as proxies for a politician.

As a result, “every shopping bag is a potential political statement,” said Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple, a consulting firm. “It is like carrying a sign in a rally.”

Patterson said her political views have “absolutely” influenced her buying decisions.

“I think everybody has their different extremes, or what they feel is worth taking a stand for,” said Patterson, who turns 34 on Monday, as she shopped with her husband and 16-month-old daughter at an Allentown mall.

The weaponized buying can be a minefield for retailers and brands, many of which are already struggling as malls fall out of favor and people buy more online. Some companies deliberately enter the political fray, betting that their customers will support their points of view. Others tread carefully, trying to avoid a backlash.

With advertising everywhere, Americans are used to seeing brand messages all the time — but not from politicians. Most Americans would prefer brands to not be political, said Wendy Liebmann, CEO of marketing consulting firm WSL Strategic Retail, and she believes companies should focus on larger messages rather than weigh in on specific political issues.

Courtney Taylor, 21, of Center Valley, Pennsylvania, said she believes shopping and politics should remain separate. But she has her limits. Taylor, who voted for Trump because she opposes abortion, said she’d stop shopping at her favorite store if it were to start donating to an abortion-rights group.

Companies “need to know if they’re going to release a political statement, people are going to react,” she said.

Monthly surveys have showed that more shoppers are citing politics among the top five factors that influence their buying decisions, according to Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at research firm NPD Group Inc. Chalk it up to election divisions that have lasted into Trump’s presidency and his own penchant for mixing politics with commerce.

Trump had used Twitter to chastise retailers like Amazon and Macy’s before complaining that Nordstrom treated his daughter “so unfairly.” Nordstrom had said the Ivanka Trump brand’s sales were falling, and ethics experts saw the tweet as an implied threat from the White House to businesses rethinking their Trump ties.

The Ivanka Trump brand says it saw double-digit percentage sales growth in 2016 from the previous year as it expanded its categories, distribution and offerings. “In recent days, we’ve seen our brand swept into the political fray, becoming collateral damage in others’ efforts to advance agendas unrelated to what we do,” the company said.

A social media campaign called “Grab Your Wallet” has urged a boycott of stores that stock Ivanka Trump or Donald Trump products, which include Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor and Amazon. Belk Inc. has said it will no longer carry Ivanka Trump items on its website, and QVC said it no longer sells her merchandise.

Even seemingly innocuous Super Bowl ads provoke sharply divided reactions. Ads that touched on immigration and diversity from advertisers including Budweiser, 84 Lumber and Coca-Cola drew Twitter chatter both pro- and anti-, with some even calling for a boycott of Budweiser — although nothing substantial materialized.

Other recent campaigns include:

• A #BoycottStarbucks campaign developed after the company responded to Trump’s immigration order by pledging to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

• Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quit Trump’s council of business leaders after an outcry from customers and employees who were upset about the travel ban, and a social media campaign urged people to delete the app.

• Cereal maker Kellogg Co. was a boycott target in November after it said it would stop advertising on Breitbart, the conservative news and opinion website formerly run by Trump’s chief strategist.

For all the noise, it remains to be seen whether these boycotts will have staying power.

Kellogg CEO John Bryant said the company saw no “discernible” effect from the boycott calls. And though it initially dropped after Trump’s tweet, Nordstrom’s stock has gained more than 5 percent since then.
“Headlines are flying fast and furious. And it will be last week’s news,” said professor Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University’s law school. “The consuming public has a short memory — and they’re forgiving,” she added.

For many shoppers, factors other than politics are just more important. Blake Wilhelm of Plattsmouth, Nebraska, says mainly he wants something that works well, and he tries to balance cost and quality.

“I don’t see a reason to boycott some company because they have a different viewpoint than I do,” said Wilhelm, 29, at an Omaha mall.

Sometimes a latte just a latte. Taylor stopped at a Starbucks at the Allentown mall — and it had nothing to do with the chain’s stance on refugees.

“I support them coming, so I support Starbucks. But it’s not the reason I went there,” she said. “I went there because I wanted hot chocolate.”