Trump voters’ message to retailers: ‘Keep your mouths shut about our president’
Rachel Veazey of Cleveland, Tennessee, swore off TJ Maxx, a favorite store, over reports it had removed promotional signs for Ivanka Trump’s line of clothes. But she later went back, confessing, "Gosh, I’m not a very good boycotter."
(Shawn Poynter / For The Washington Post)
Mary Carson picks up her leopard-print tote bag and tugs on her leopard-print scarf.
"I’m just going to do a little bit of business," the 77-year-old says as she walks into Neiman Marcus at the Tysons Galleria in Northern Virginia and asks for the manager. He appears in a pinstripe suit and shakes her hand.
"I’m very disappointed in what’s happened with the Trump line," she tells him. "I hate to do this – I’m not a real activist – but I learned a long, long time ago that you cannot mix business and politics."
The manager listens patiently.
Carson, who worked in marketing before she retired, pulls out her Neiman Marcus credit card and prepares to give it back. It was the obvious thing to do, she says, once the retailer stopped carrying Ivanka Trump’s jewelry line on its website a few weeks ago.
"If the company feels like they can hurt the daughter of a president by doing something like this, that’s mean," said Carson, who voted for Trump. "I feel very strongly about that."
A week earlier, Carson had driven to the nearby Nordstrom and returned her store credit card. She’d had that card since 1988, she told the manager, and had used it to buy at least one St. John suit a year – price tag, roughly $1,400 – for decades.
"I said to her, ‘You all really are the best store in the area,’" recalled Carson, who lives in Vienna, Virginia. "’It’s a shame you couldn’t keep your mouths shut about our president.’"
Some companies have announced in recent weeks that they would be culling Ivanka Trump’s brand. Others have faced pressure from left-leaning groups to drop other Trump-family products. In response, conservative voters – who say they are tired of the negativity surrounding the new president – are staging their own boycotts against mainstream retailers. It’s difficult to gauge how widespread these efforts are, or whether they will inspire real change, but stories about them are bubbling up.
The movement gained steam this month when Nordstrom dropped Ivanka Trump’s clothing and shoes from its stores after a period of declining sales. Soon after that, Kmart and Sears, also citing slow sales, announced they would be removing some Trump-branded products from their websites. There were reports that Marshalls and TJ Maxx had instructed employees to remove Ivanka Trump signs from store racks, although her clothing is still on sale there.
The first five weeks of Trump’s presidency have been marked by political polarization that has only deepened in the aftermath of a historic, contentious election. It has stirred a spirit of activism for Americans who say they are trying to make a difference where they can – and that increasingly means making deliberate choices about where they shop and what they buy.
"Boycotts are nothing new – they’ve literally been around forever – but we’re seeing retail become more of a bully pulpit," said Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. "How are consumers showing their disappointment? Some are demonstrating, others are spending a fair amount of time complaining. Many are voting with their wallets."
Back at Neiman Marcus, Carson is telling the manager that she intends to do just that. It didn’t bother her so much when Macy’s dropped President Donald Trump’s suits, shirts and ties two summers ago after he called Mexican immigrants "killers" and "rapists." But something about this recent round of cancellations, she says, struck a chord.
"There is just so much negativity in the country right now," she says. "Everything has become political."
The manager assures Carson that a few Neiman Marcus stores still carry Ivanka Trump jewelry, so she decides to hold onto her credit card – for now.
"But if that changes, I’ll be back to ask more questions," she says. "I’m going to keep my eye on this."
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A few days later, Carson is back at the mall. It’s Sunday afternoon, just after church, and she sees something that startles her: a T-shirt that says "F*** America" prominently displayed in a store entrance.
She walks in and asks the manager to remove it. "It’s not appropriate," she says. When he refuses – it’s his opinion against hers, he tells her – she enlists the mall’s management. The shirt is removed.
These bursts of negativity and displays of hatred, as she sees them, have been mounting since before the election. Then came Trump’s victory and with it, swift backlash from the left. Take, for instance, the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration. Carson read up on it online.
"I could not believe the reasons they were doing this," she said. "It was like, you know, pro-abortion – and I’m sorry, I’m Catholic, I’m a little religious and old-fashioned."
When her longtime yoga teacher sent an email offering $5 classes before the march, Carson wrote back and told her she would no longer attend the studio.
"I was very nice, very congenial," she said. "But what did she think: If she gives me $10 off one yoga lesson, I’m going to go and march with her in the Women’s March? I’m sorry, but that, to me, isn’t doing business."
The way she sees it, retailers are only listening to one side when they shed Trump-branded products. The Grab Your Wallet campaign, which encourages widespread boycotts of companies that carry Trump brands, has dominated the news, she says. Her hope is her counteractions – credit card cancellations and store boycotts – will show retailers that conservative shoppers have spending power, too.
And she isn’t alone. A number of Trump voters – mostly longtime Republicans – said they had taken similar actions in recent weeks. Many had never been politically active before but said they felt a sense of urgency now. They weren’t represented in the mainstream media, they said, and increasingly felt their influence in other areas slipping, too. It felt important to band together.
"Business women, educated women like me, we voted for Trump," said a 51-year-old Iranian immigrant who lives in Los Angeles. "That’s what these stores don’t understand. There are a lot of us, and we like to shop."
The woman, a registered Democrat, spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared backlash at her financial services job.
"When Nordstrom announced they were getting rid of Ivanka’s brand, that was a dealbreaker for me," she said, adding that she owns about 25 pieces of clothing and at least eight pairs of shoes from Ivanka Trump’s line. "If management is going to be so narrow-minded, I’m just not going to shop there anymore."
Nordstrom says its decision to drop the brand was based on plummeting sales, not politics. Company documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal showed that sales of Ivanka Trump clothing and shoes fell more than 70 percent in the weeks before the presidential election.
"Each year we cut about 10 percent [of brands] and refresh our assortment with about the same amount," the company said. "In this case, based on the brand’s performance, we’ve decided not to buy it for this season."
There are small signs that the campaign is working. Ivanka Trump’s perfume skyrocketed to the top of Amazon.com’s best-selling fragrances as the president’s supporters looked to make their mark. (Jeffrey Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
"I bought this perfume in support of Ivanka Trump," a user named D. Watts wrote in an Amazon review. " I had no idea how it smelled. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised and I LOVE it!!"
"The fact is that the conservative woman also has a huge, huge influence on spending," said Tammy Witt O’Connor of Oxford, Michigan, who put her Nordstrom Rewards card through the shredder after she heard the company had dropped Ivanka Trump’s line. "For these retail brands to not realize that is shocking to me. I want retailers to be aware that there are consequences on both sides."
Rachel Veazey does, too. She used to shop at TJ Maxx at least three times a week. In a typical month, she spent $1,000 buying clothing, furniture and homewares at the store.
"When TJ Maxx tries to make a statement against the president’s family, that to me is just unnecessary," said Veazey, a registered Republican from Cleveland, Tenn., who backed President Trump from the beginning.
"It’s really cramped my style," she said last week, "but you’ve got to stand by your principles. I’ve resisted the temptation to go."
But a few days later, she wrote on Facebook, TJ Maxx had lured her back.
"The mother ship called and I had a moment of weakness," she posted online, alongside a selfie of herself outside her favorite store.
"I broke down and went in," she said. "I mean, $24 for a nice dress? I just couldn’t resist. Gosh, I’m not a very good boycotter.
"But," she added, "I’m trying."
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In terms of large-scale influence, analysts say it’s unlikely boycotts will make or break mainstream retailers. It’s too soon to tell, for example, whether Nordstrom’s earnings will be affected by the political firestorm. Nordstrom’s president on Thursday said "it’s not really discernible one way or the other" whether a tweet by President Trump chastizing Nordstrom for treating his daughter "so unfairly" had affected sales.
Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A and Target have been the subject of protests in recent years, but all three are still in business, said Paula Rosenblum, managing partner of Retail Systems Research in Miami.
"We’re in such a hyper-polarized environment – I’ve never seen the country this polarized, ever," she said.
But even those who intend to make a stand may not stick with it. "In the end, convenience overrides everything else," Rosenblum said.
Mary Carson is not about convenience. Four years ago, after she’d overcome cancer and endured four rounds of chemotherapy, Carson found she had lost all feeling in her hands and feet. For three years, doctors told her the sensation would come back. And then one day, a doctor told her to "suck it up and accept" that it wouldn’t.
"I looked at him and I thought, that’s rude," Carson recalled. "But you know what? That turned out to be the best lesson I ever had. I sucked it up and accepted it. I’m alive. If the nation would suck it up – this is our president now, just accept it – we would all be in a better place today."
Carson, who once was a Democrat, says it’s important to note that she bristles at the president’s style. (She declined to discuss his policies.)
When the Trump campaign called asking for money during the election, Carson said she wanted to offer a message to the nominee instead: "Tell him if I was his mother, I’d wash his mouth out with soap. He has to learn to stop lashing out."
But still, she says, the media are focusing only on the bad. She is toying with canceling her 50-year subscription to The Washington Post, which she reads each morning, along with USA Today and the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Free Lance-Star.
Everyone seems to be against the president, Carson says. There have been leaders she hasn’t agreed with, but she’s never made a fuss.
But now she says she’s holding companies accountable and rallying her friends, too. A couple of weeks ago, after returning her credit card at Nordstrom, Carson posted to her Facebook page: "Feel like a load is off my back!!!!"
Twenty-five friends "liked" her update. Many wrote back saying that they had done the same, or that they planned to.