Shop-ins, boycotts, and protests have retailers feeling the heat

Nina Rosenthal of Villanova and a group of women will be holding a “shop-in” at Nordstrom at King of Prussia Mall on Saturday as a show of support for the retailer’s decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s brand from its shelves — an action that President Trump publicly lambasted last week.

But Matthew Stover, 44, a truck driver from the Eastwick section of Philadelphia who voted for Trump, has stopped shopping at Macy’s — even getting his holiday gift cards elsewhere — after it decided to drop Donald Trump’s line of ties during the presidential primary.

It's neither politics nor shopping as usual in these times.

Never in living memory have retailers been so caught in the crosshairs of presidential politics, as such shoppers as Rosenthal and Stover are anything but neutral. They are voting with their wallets and shopping at places aligned with their political beliefs, or their feelings for Trump.

Other companies, including Urban Outfitters (selling anti-Trump T-shirts, mugs,  and pins during the presidential campaign) and the New Balance sneaker company (for supporting Trump), have been caught in the crossfire. South Jersey-based Burlington Coat Factory this week also decided to stop carrying Ivanka Trump products.

“In the past, companies could usually get away with staying neutral in political conflict,” said Noelle Nelson, a professor of marketing at University of Kansas School of Business. 

“However, lately, the divides between people have gotten so deep that it's almost an 'if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us' mentality. This may be because, even if it doesn't always show up, consumers do sometimes think of companies like they think of people. That is, the company has a personality, and should have a stance on really important issues.”

Joel Naroff, president of Naroff Economic Advisors Inc., said the level of political activity among consumers is at an all-time high.

“Clearly, the president’s aggressive attitude to those who disagree with him, whether that be on policy or personal business, has not only rallied his troops, but has also helped create a major opposition,” he said.  “There are websites showing who to buy from and who not to buy from — for both sides.  And people are doing just that, even if they are doing so quietly.  That does put both the business executive and the business in the crosshairs and I don’t think it will subside anytime soon."

A number of big-name brands, including Uber,  Under Armour, and Neiman Marcus, have been the subject of politically charged boycotts in recent weeks.

How about a shop-in? That’s what Rosenthal and some friends from Bala Cynwyd to Malvern have planned for noon Saturday at Nordstrom.

Rosenthal said the impetus behind the shopping spree of mostly women —the event is open to anyone — was the feeling that Trump bullied Nordstrom after it decided to drop his daughter’s clothing and accessory line.

“Many people voted for Trump because he was a successful businessman, and now he is the leader of the greatest free market in the free world, and he bullied Nordstrom,” Rosenthal said.  “If he truly supports a free-market capitalist democracy, then he shouldn't interfere with and manipulate the system through his personal comments.

“So here we have the opportunity to speak with our wallets, and let the powers that be know that we value freedom above all.”

Trump supporter Stover blames Macy's recent closures and financial troubles on its decision to dump the Donald Trump line during the presidential primary campaign in 2015 after Trump made controversial comments about Latino Americans.

Stover said Trump’s position on illegal immigrants has been misrepresented by his detractors.

“It's exclusively the illegal aliens that are the real issue here,” Stover said. “Please don't let these opposition activists obfuscate the truths of these matters: Get the illegals out and fill those real jobs with real citizens, whether they're immigrants or natural-born.

“Our largest American companies use illegal aliens for all of their unloading, stocking, forklift, and other such work,” said the truck driver. “If we apply the law, as Trump suggests, we'll have millions of jobs for rightful American citizens."

Stover said he boycotted Macy's at Trump's request. “I bought my friend Macy's Christmas gifts for 30 years straight, but shopped elsewhere” last holiday season.

Naroff said the mixing of business, politics, and economic policy could have lasting effects. “Saying nothing about certain policies seems like the logical approach," he said. " But that could inflame workers and in a labor-shortage environment, that could be devastating." 

Kevin Plank, the Under Armour CEO, made casual remarks in praise of Trump, and later softened his stance. In a paid ad, he reiterated that his company stood for equal rights and job creation and wrote that he believed that “immigration is a source of strength, diversity and innovation for global companies based in America."

Americus Reed II,  a professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, said companies' taking a position is a calculated risk.

“You believe as a company it’s important to express your values – but will customers jump ship? It remains to be seen.”

Some consumers, such as Adrienne Redd, 55, of Jenkintown, are weighing their options. She braved the cold to participate in a three-hour protest with more than 5,000 people at Philadelphia International Airport on Jan. 28 over Trump’s proposed ban of immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries.

“Yes, I have heard discussions of some wanting to change their bank, or boycotting Trump-supporting companies inspired by the #grabyourwallet list,” said Redd, an adjunct professor of sociology at Community College of Philadelphia. “The more important question is what to 'pro-cott' — where to put one's money if one pulls it from Amazon or Hobby Lobby. 

“We may have to expend some effort, or inconvenience ourselves, if we want our collective economic behavior to have an impact,” she said.