Retailers aren’t wasting any time reacting pulling a brand from their shelves when it gets caught up in a social media firestorm and threatens to put them on the wrong side of an important issue.
“They’ve learned to react quickly because they are all doing Twitter, so it’s real-time,” said Jan Kniffen, owner of J. Rogers Kniffen Worldwide Enterprises LLC, a retail consultant.
Last month, certain retailers stopped selling goods bearing the Confederate flag after the divisive symbol from the Civil War featured prominently in online pictures of Dylann Roof, who is accused of killing nine people in a racially charged shooting in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, June 19.
By that Monday, Wal-Mart released a statement saying, “We have taken steps to remove all items promoting the confederate flag from our assortment — whether in our stores or on our Web site.” Sears followed Wal-Mart and then by Tuesday online retailer Amazon decided to drop the merchandise as well.
And when Presidential candidate Donald Trump offended many by saying Mexican immigrants were bringing drugs and crime to the U.S., broadcasters moved quickly to remove Trump programming, including the Miss USA Pageant. And a three-year-old MoveOn.org petition asking Macy’s to drop Trump started to gain some serious traction.
With almost 600 new signatures an hour, Macy’s could see the tides turning and on Wednesday said it would drop the Trump brand in its stores, noting, “We have no tolerance for discrimination in any form. We welcome all customers, and respect for the dignity of all people is a cornerstone of our culture.”
But not everyone agrees with Macy’s move.
Digital strategist Joel Leyden, ceo of Leyden Digital PR, said, “I think someone made the wrong decision here. Your business is to sell merchandise and if you enter social issues, then you open yourself up to all social issues.” Leyden does concede there is a large customer audience that is affected by social media, but that perhaps the average American customer may be unaware of the comments.
Kniffen pointed out that retailers want a relationship with their customers and especially the Millennial customer. They don’t want to be on the wrong side of an issue. Last September, Urban Outfitters moved quickly after Buzzfeed pointed out that the company was selling a red-splattered Kent State University sweatshirt that brought to mind the 1970 shooting in which four students died. Urban Outfitters was chastised in social media and likewise went to Twitter to apologize for the offensive sweatshirt.
These quick reactions aren’t without some risk.
Kniffen notes that Wal-Mart’s best division is in the Southeast and has been for years. The flag remains a popular item with a certain clientele. “They probably looked at it and said we’ll be on the right side of this issue,” said Kniffen. “[Chief executive officer] Doug McMillon is savvy and young and willing to take risks. Ten years ago, Wal-Mart might have been less willing to take this risk.”
Leyden is concerned that the retailers are putting a social agenda before selling merchandise. “I bought some Donald Trump cuff links at Macy’s and I think it will leave a bad feeling for customers. Maybe they have a political agenda. Maybe someone at Macy’s prefers another political candidate,” said Leyden. “I think it’s a bad move by Macy’s.”
Kniffen added, “Whether it’s gay marriage or the flag, when the polls move to the popular side, that’s where [retailers] will go.”