Retailers React: Social Issues vs. Social Media

As retailers continue to use social media to promote their brand in real-time, they seem to be reacting in almost real-time to 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.

Earlier this summer, certain retailers stopped selling goods bearing the Confederate flag after the divisiveness 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, “says Walmart spokesman Brian Nick. “We have a process in place to help lead us to the right decisions when it comes to the merchandise we sell. Still, at times, items make their way into our assortment improperly — this is one of those instances.” Amazon, eBay, and Sears followed amid an intensifying national debate over the use of the controversial flag.

Macy’s pulled Donald Trump brand merchandise from its stores after the Republican presidential candidate’s controversial remarks created a public uproar. The department store had come under intense pressure to cut ties with the real estate magnate and businessmen after he referred to immigrants from Mexico were bringing drugs and crime to the U.S.

In a statement, Macy’s said the company “stands for diversity” and that it had no tolerance for discrimination.

“We are disappointed and distressed by recent remarks about immigrants from Mexico. We do not believe the disparaging characterizations portray an accurate picture of the many Mexicans, Mexican Americans and Latinos who have made so many valuable contributions to the success of our nation,” Macy’s said. “In light of statements made by Donald Trump, which are inconsistent with Macy’s values, we have decided to discontinue our business relationship with Mr. Trump and will phase-out the Trump menswear collection, which has been sold at Macy’s since 2004.”

A MoveOn.org petition calling Macy’s to sever its relationship with Trump had collected well over 700,000 signatures.

“Donald Trump does not reflect ‘the magic of Macy’s,'” the petition reads. “Macy’s says it has a strong obligation to be ‘socially responsible’ and that ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Indeed. It’s time to act.”

NBCUniversal, which had jointly owned the Miss USA pageant and Miss Universe pageant with Trump, has also severed its relationship with the white house candidate.

But not everyone agrees with these quick moves and some caution they aren’t without risk.

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.

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.”

Is this a new trend where retailers quickly move to the popular side of the social media? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the debate below.