Politics, Retail And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

While most of the mainstream news has fallen in love with covering every move in Washington in real time, here at PYMNTS we don’t generally have much to say about politics, presidential or otherwise. Because, if we’re being honest with ourselves, if it’s not about payments, commerce or , how important could it really be?

But every once in a great while, the subject emerges in an unexpected and thrilling way — and because we were especially good this year, it happened at the right time: for the celebration of President’s Day weekend.

This is a holiday that has as much to do with shopping as it does paying homage to dead presidents.

This weekend, apparel retailers will be trying to clear out their winter inventory, car dealerships will try to catch the wave of early income tax refunds, and anyone looking to upgrade their TV or washer/dryer will be in heaven over the next three days. President’s Day is the last non-denominational holiday on the calendar until Mother’s Day and the cap to what is historically the worst consumer spending month of the year. In 2016, February had its strongest performance since the great recession, with a $302 billion take. But it still fell $4 billion short of spending in March.

And while we await the spending results (and weather reports) to see how the vast majority of retailers did, we know that there are at least two who will not be getting their wish for a normal President’s Day weekend because — ironically enough — they’ve found themselves caught up in presidential politics. Nordstrom and Wegmans are not normally partisan issues, though they are both retail brands with their share of devotes, but, as we noted, both are having something of an unusual week in that they’ve both found themselves, separately, in a quarrel with the White House.

And though those quarrels are kind of opposite — Nordstrom’s headaches this week stem from ceasing a Trump brand, and Wegmans’ issue from carrying one — they both have a weirdly similar moral.

Trying to carry politics out on the showroom floor can be tricky.

Nordstrom’s Trump Kerfuffle

This, by now, may be old news to many. Said kerfuffle started with the decision on Nordstrom’s part to cease carrying the Ivanka Trump clothing brand — citing a lack of compelling sales performance.

“Each year we cut about 10 percent [of brands carried] and refresh our assortment with about the same amount,” a Nordstrom representative explained. “In this case, based on the brand’s performance, we’ve decided not to buy it for this season.”

The move drew criticism, as Nordstrom’s was threatened with a boycott last November because it carried the Ivanka Trump line.  A consumer’s open letter to the company vent viral, noting that the Ivanka Trump brand was “toxic” and calling for the retailer to stop selling it.

At the time, Nordstrom responded that it was not taking a political stance by selling Trump’s products.

“We hope that offering a vendor’s products isn’t misunderstood as us taking a political position; we’re not. We recognize our customers can make choices about what they purchase based on personal views, and we’ll continue to give them options,” a Nordstrom’s spokesperson said.

Critics argued that Nordstrom had caved to pressure and decided to give its customers fewer options.

One critic in was notably visible, critic.

“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!” President Trump wrote on Wednesday on both his personal and official presidential Twitter accounts.

That use of the official presidential account was considered … unusual.

The Unexpected Consequence

“This is misuse of public office for private gains,” Richard Painter, who served as Republican President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, said in an email to Reuters. “And it is abuse of power because the official message is clear — Nordstrom is persona non grata with the administration.”

And so began the blow-back over the president’s tweet — and the mounting concerns over the Trump brand and Trump presidency. This elicited another few responses from the White House.

“For someone to take out their concern with his policies on a family member of his is just not acceptable. And the president has every right as a father to stand up to them,” Press Secretary Sean Spicer noted during a press briefing.

The story got even more exciting when White House advisor Kellyanne Conway offered an extensive plug for Ivanka Trump’s brand during a television experience, telling viewers to “go buy it” and that she was “doing a commercial.”

That prompted a letter from the Office of Government Ethics recommending that Conway be investigated for those remarks.

“There is strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct and that disciplinary action is warranted," the letter read, before recommending disciplinary action.

So what started as a small story about Ivanka’s brand in Nordstrom has now become a much bigger story about one of the president’s top advisers facing claims that she abused her office.

But then …

Wegmans’ War Over Wine

Nordstrom is not the only retailer that has been threatened with a boycott from groups opposed to the president’s policies — or, in some cases, to his holding office at all. Under Armor and Neiman Marcus have recently faced similar outcries.

Adding to that list this week is perhaps an unexpected entrant: Wegmans.

Wegmans carries products from Trump Wineries — in a limited capacity in its Virginia stores — a fact that was recently noted by about 300 members of the Prince William County chapter of the National Organization for Women. The group then made plans to push Wegmans to stop carrying products from the Charlottesville winery via a boycott.

“Certainly if Wegmans is carrying Trump wines, I personally will not shop there,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, who was not present at the meeting.

Wegmans current carries 237 Virginia wines from 58 wineries at its local stores.

According to Jo Natale, vice president of media relations for Wegmans, the company has been selling wines from the Charlottesville winery since 2008, before it was owned by Donald Trump — and long before he campaigned for the White House.

“Our role as a retailer is to offer choice to our customers,” she said, adding that the company ultimately decides whether to stock a product based solely on how well it sells.

Still, one shopper told The Washington Post that despite her great affection for Wegmans, she wasn’t sure she could shop there if Trump products would be in her line of sight.

“I shop pretty exclusively at Wegmans, but seeing Trump wines on the shelf, that’s really bothersome to me,” she said, adding that she’s also avoiding DSW and Lord & Taylor because they carry Ivanka Trump’s line. “I guess I’ll have to go to Shoppers now.”

The Unexpected Result

As it turns out, that shopper is in the minority. Not only do most people not mind the presence of Trump’s wine, but for the President’s Day weekend it seems likely that a whole lot of Virginians are going to be drinking it.

According to local news reports, Trump wines are nearly sold out statewide. In the Richmond area, you can’t find a bottle of the stuff, and the same goes for Charlottesville, Va., where the home vineyard is located.

Not great news for those protestors. Wegmans has already ruled that the Trump wines will stay on shelves in their Virginia stores. Then consumers rewarded them for it.

“How a product performs is our single measure for what stays on our shelves and what goes,” Natale said. “Individual shoppers who feel strongly about an issue can demonstrate their convictions by refusing to buy a product. When enough people do the same and sales of a product drop precipitously, we stop selling that product in favor of one that’s in greater demand.”

Looks like Trump wines will be on the shelves for a while to come.

Until next week … happy shopping.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.

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