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JENNIFER WAGNER: Do shopping habits triumph over political outrage?

April 13, 2018

Wagner
Earlier this year, following another mass school shooting, Dick’s Sporting Goods announced it would stop selling assault-style rifles and would ban the sale of firearms to customers under the age of 21. In response, two 20-year-old employees angrily quit, posting their reasons on social media.

“I find [these policies] morally and constitutionally wrong. I refuse to be a part of a corporation with these liberal policies,” one of the employees wrote.

Ignoring the fact that Dick’s is well within its constitutional rights to do what it did, the bigger question is whether anyone cares.

(Spoiler alert: At the writing of this column, both Dick’s and Walmart, which enacted a similar policy around the same time, were still quite solvent in the American marketplace.)

In short, do customers actually follow through on protests, or do retail habits triumph over political outrage?

I found myself pondering this question as I walked around Disney World on spring break.

Walt Disney—the man—became more conservative in his later years, but the company that bears his name has taken its fair share of knocks from the right, most notably for its stance on LGBT equality and some of its programming. Yet you’d never guess that watching or listening to Disney guests strolling through the Magic Kingdom or Epcot. The happiest place on Earth also seems to be one of the most diverse.

Perhaps folks spending time at Disney care more about family fun than the company’s political agenda, or perhaps we were all speaking the universal language of $5 Mickey Mouse ice cream bars, but no one seemed to be talking about Donald Trump or Russian election interference.

Back home in Indiana, I’m similarly struck when I pass a massive pickup truck that’s powered by a Cummins engine but sporting a Confederate flag decal. As a company, Cummins is dedicated to sustainability and improving its products to support our environment. It also cares a lot about the communities in which it operates. But that doesn’t seem to affect its popularity among folks who might not rate those issues high among their personal political priorities.

So maybe company boycotts don’t really matter. Maybe we raise our fists and say we won’t buy something that doesn’t align with our beliefs—but we do it, anyway. (I’ll confess to shopping or dining at places even when I don’t agree with all their business practices or political stances.)

But maybe, just maybe, those protests do make a difference every once in a while. Maybe a series of events—like mass shootings at schools—cause enough people to voice their anger that companies take note and respond despite pressure from national special-interest groups. Looking at you, Dick’s and Walmart, and not in a bad way.

My conservative friends would say that’s how the free market should work, and they’re right. That doesn’t mean, however, that government doesn’t have a role to play when it comes to matters of public health, safety and the economy—a role we’ll continue to debate for decades to come.

In the meantime, though, I can feel a little bit better about shopping at Walmart because I agree with its new position on the sale of firearms. And I can continue loving Disney and Cummins and Costco and other places that align more with my beliefs.

Because, ultimately, that’s really what all companies are after: making me and my fellow patrons feel good—or just good enough—to keep spending our hard-earned dollars there.•

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Wagner is a lifelong Indianapolis resident and vice president of communications at EdChoice. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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