Boycotts can be very effective even if they don't hurt sales

Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka TrumpGetty ImagesDonald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump.

Is the anti-Trump Grab Your Wallet boycott working? That depends how you look at it.

Since October, the movement has gained steam encouraging people to stop spending money at dozens of companies that do business with the Trump family. In recent months, many large retailers, including Nordstrom, Sears, and Neiman Marcus have stopped selling Trump-brand items.

The Ivanka Trump brand, however, maintains that business is better than ever. The brand’s president, Abigail Klem, recently told Refinery 29 that since the beginning of February, the brand has had some of the “best performing weeks in the history of the brand.”

But according to Lawrence Glickman, a Cornell history professor, a boycott isn’t only about making a business suffer.

“Boycotts that are primarily about raising political consciousness — about drawing people’s attention to something,” Glickman, the author of “Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America,” told Business Insider.

According to Glickman, there are two kinds of boycotts in American history, with two different goals. Local boycotts can focus on one company or handful of companies to impact specific, local change — for example, the Montgomery bus boycott. However, national boycotts are less about impacting sales, and more about forcing Americans to realise how a wider political issue impacts their daily life.

“What boycotters try to do is try to personalise the economy, which is often abstract to people,” Glickman said. “So, you see yourself buying a good, but you don’t necessarily see yourself affecting people or the environment in a direct way.

“What boycotters have always tried to do is separate people from their illusions about consumption, and say, ‘this is the direct impact of you buying these goods.'”

By forcing Americans to make personal connections to their purchases, boycotts can help set the national political agenda.

For example, in the 1800s, abolitionists organised boycotts against goods made with slave labour. The boycotts were not successful in putting companies out of business, especially as pro-Southern groups organised counter-boycotts of their own. However, the boycotts were successful in demonstrating to all Americans how they were personally invested in slavery, and highlighting abolition as an important issue that impacted both Northerners and Southerners.

In the case of the anti-Trump Grab Your Wallet movement, the loss of sales seems unlikely to put any major retailer out of business. Boycotts simply don’t put a big enough dent in sales to hurt a national company’s business (though reputation is another story).

Instead, boycotts show their strength when they set the political agenda.

Starbucks sales may not be impacted by people boycotting the chain due to the company’s plan to hire 10,000 employees. But the boycott’s dominance on social media and in press coverage forced Starbucks lovers across the political spectrum to consider their opinion on Trump’s immigration ban. Similarly, Macy’s may not be impacted by the Grab Your Wallet movement’s boycott, but boycotters’ efforts constantly resurface statements and policies of the president that the progressive movement opposes.

“The economic impact might not be that great, but the political impact might be huge, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite words,” Glickman said.

Ultimately, boycotts can’t be judged by how much they impact sales. Instead, they need to be judged on how much they move the political needle.

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