By Devon M. Herrick
After the election of Donald Trump, many Trump haters decided to send a powerful message by encouraging people to boycott as many of his enterprises as possible.
The online initiative #GrabYourWallet was organized to track firms doing business with the Trump family. At last count, around 57 companies are on the boycott list, including Macy's, L.L. Bean, Amazon, and numerous others. Interestingly, most of the companies are apolitical, but some happen to carry Ivanka Trump apparel.
If advocates are successful in convincing retailers to pull all Ivanka merchandise from shelves it won't change anything. The president is not going to step down.
Do consumer boycotts really achieve anything? According to experts the answer is: No, not in the long run - at least not in a meaningful way.
Professor Maurice Schweitzer of the University of Pennsylvania has studied boycotts. He told Forbes, "Boycotts typically have more symbolic value than economic impact." On a recent podcast for Freakonomics radio, UCLA economics professor Ivo Welch said, "Boycotts almost surely will never work."
A boycott is often joined by people who would not have purchased a company's product anyway. The diehard activist will look for alternative products to buy. However, marginal customers who participate in boycotts lose interest quickly. They ultimately give in to their preferences and yield to convenience if the boycott requires any effort. Boycotts are typically just short term PR headaches for the targeted company.
A potential victory is to discourage companies from weighing in publicly on political issues that would be better left to individual debate. Chick-fil-A learned this lesson in 2012, when the chief operating officer got into trouble for comments he made regarding his opposition to gay marriage. There were subsequent calls for a boycott and even threats from a couple of local officials to block new franchises.
Chick-fil-A is a Georgia-based fast-food chain whose wealthy founder long supported religious organizations that hold traditional views on marriage. In response to the boycott, a counter boycott was organized and the result was huge crowds and a 30 percent boost in sales that day.
By all accounts Chick-fil-A is doing well, with 2,000 locations and $6 billion in annual revenue. Other than practicing smarter public relations since the controversy, its business and philanthropy have not changed.
Brayden King, a professor at Northwestern University who researched consumer boycotts conducted from 1990 to 2005, found boycotts did not reduce sales to a significant degree. Most experts who've studied boycotts would agree. Targeted companies changed some aspect of their business practices in about one-third of the cases. The bad PR did affect the stock price, but typically for a couple months.
In August 2009, Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey wrote a commentary in the Wall Street Journal critical of Obamacare. The backlash from his liberal customers was fast and furious. What was the long-term effect? At the time Whole Foods' stock was selling for just over $14 a share. Two years later it had doubled and four years later it was $65.
L.L. Bean landed on the GrabYourWallet boycott list when a wealthy heiress - one of more than 50 family members who own stock - contributed to a pro-Donald Trump political action committee. It's not clear what the boycotters hope to achieve. Any harm will likely hit workers the hardest. More than half of L.L. Bean stores are in blue states and most of its employees presumably did not vote for Trump.
Left-wing advocates are pushing so many boycotts simultaneously that it is impossible for any campaign to make much difference. The biggest effect is probably a case of heartburn for the targeted company's corporate communications director.