In today’s heated political climate, when consumers on both sides of issues push their favorite stores to take sides, can retail really stay out of politics? And more importantly, should it?
Nordstrom recently got caught in a crosshairs trifecta of a #grabyourwallet boycott movement, President Donald Trump’s Twitter finger and consumers’ credit cards. It’s a political and bottom line clash that Nordstrom’s buying teams certainly didn’t ask for when they picked up Ivanka Trump’s line of dresses and footwear years ago. Nordstrom recently dropped the brand citing “poor sales”.
Scrutiny of a store’s buying choices is nothing new–think PETA or human rights groups calling out retailers that sell fur or brands made in sweatshop conditions. This year, however, politics and an increasingly engaged consumer have been thrown into the mix. Big time.
The Nordstrom/Ivanka Trump issue has activated and polarized consumers on both sides, putting retailers in a spot where they risk being singled out by the president of the United States in a tweet–a move that has known to shift markets (indeed Nordstrom’s stock initially tumbled but quickly rebounded). Some Trump supporters have cut up their Nordstrom credit cards in response to the store dropping Ivanka Trump merchandise. Other Trump detractors have hightailed it to the store to shop till they drop. Both sides have documented their positions on social media, pleasing like-minded friends and family, and surely irritating others. Look at two (of many) tweets:
It probably didn’t help neutrality issues when Trump advisor KellyAnne Conway told TV viewers to “to go buy Ivanka’s stuff” (flouting a federal ethics law barring public employees from making an “endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relatives, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity”). While that is being looked into, it begs the question: Can retail and politics really stay out of each other’s way?
TO SUPPORT OR NOT…
Corporations are made up of real people, most who have political affiliations, and some who overtly show support through donations or other methods. That’s nothing new. But today’s polarized, social media-fueled political climate has put such endorsements under the microscope. The public often pushes a retailer to “take sides,” and consumers vote with their wallets depending on whether they agree or not.
“The whole trend in consumer products and retail is toward values-oriented products. ‘Does the product I buy reflect my values? And if your values are political, that counts a lot,” says Richard Kestenbaum, Partner at Triangle Capital LLC.
So should a store take sides or not?
“The political currency that has taken root in the world right now is anger, and anger has become a legitimate way of expressing a political statement,” says Kestenbaum, who cites both retailers and fashion brands as his clients. “The retail world is most reflective of what consumers want. So if you are a retailer with a demographic that leans one way or another, you have to react to a political issue.”
Nordstrom is hardly the first retailer to get caught in controversies around Donald Trump. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank faced a recent social media backlash after he praised Trump’s pro-business philosophy. In response to tweets tagged #boycottUnderArmour, the company issued a statement that Under Armour “engage[s] in policy, not politics.” And before that happened, L.L. Bean faced boycott calls after information broke that one of the founder’s family members had contributed to a political action committee backing Trump.
Recently, e-commerce site Shopify has been under pressure on social media from its customers to knock right-wing news site Breitbart off the site, a move that Shopify’s CEO has refused to do. “To kick off a merchant is to censor ideas and interfere with the free exchange of products at the core of commerce. When we kick off a merchant, we’re asserting our own moral code as the superior one. But who gets to define that moral code?” Shopify CEO Tobias Lütke wrote in a post on Medium.
Lütke said that companies are permitted to use the Shopify platform “as long as they are within the law.” Whether or not that company is popular or Shopify agrees with their premise is irrelevant. Lütke wrote in his post that he has received more than 10,000 emails, tweets and other messages urging Shopify to stop hosting Breitbart’s online, and even included a screen shot of his inbox and the email subject lines. According to BuzzFeed, “employees have been asking for an updated policy on what types of clients Shopify will work with.”
And don’t think Nordstrom is the only fashion retailer having to address the Ivanka Trump conundrum. TJMaxx and Marshalls reportedly didn’t drop Ivanka Trump merchandise, but did tell salespeople what to do about it. In a note reported by the New York Times, employees were told: “Effective immediately, please remove all Ivanka Trump merchandise from features and mix into” the regular racks. All Ivanka Trump signs should be discarded.”
FASHION GETS POLITICAL
The fashion industry, which tends to lean left, hasn’t been shy about making political statements. Remember all the brouhaha over who would dress Melania Trump? Ralph Lauren outfitted her in the light blue ensemble for the inauguration, but not without backlash. More recently, at Fashion Week, #TiedTogether white bandanas started showing up at Tommy Hilfiger and other shows. These bandanas make a “clear statement in support of solidarity, human unity and inclusiveness amidst growing uncertainty and a dangerous narrative peddling division,” according to the #TiedTogether movement.
Another bold initiative was the CFDA’s partnership with Planned Parenthood, which resulted in hot pink “Fashion Stands With Planned Parenthood” buttons. Designers were encouraged to put them on their models and over 40 brands have already signed on, including Diane von Furstenberg, Tory Burch, Zac Posen, Carolina Herrera, Proenza Schouler, Public School, Prabal Gurung, Jonathan Simkhai, and Kate Spade, among others. Do retailers who carry those brands necessarily agree with this stance? Some will, some won’t.
So while many brands and retailers choose to get into the political fray, others are dragged in. Nonetheless, they need to be prepared to respond.