Sell Ivanka Trump line or not? For stores, either choice brings risk

Nordstrom’s decision to drop Ivanka Trump products enraged President Donald Trump, perplexed marketing experts and spurred one boycott but ended another.

The merchant’s move underscored the fraught nature of mixing business and politics — even unwittingly — in the Trump era.

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“My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom,” Trump tweeted after the Seattle-based retailer this month stopped selling her brand. “She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!”

The decision sparked backlash on Facebook and other social media sites. Actor Scott Baio, a Trump fan, said he and his wife no longer would shop at Nordstrom. However, Nordstrom is back in the good graces of the anti-Trump group #grabyourwallet, which urges consumers to boycott Amazon, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and other retailers that carry Ivanka Trump clothes, purses and shoes.

The kerfuffle with Nordtsrom — which operates five stores in Palm Beach County — is just one example of a big brand sparking controversy by apparently choosing political sides. After Under Armour Chief Executive Kevin Plank praised Trump in a television interview, NBA star Stephen Curry publicly disagreed with his shoe sponsor, and some Trump critics vowed to stop buying the company’s gear. Plank later distanced himself from Trump’s immigration policies.

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“Businesses in general, not just Nordstrom, have to figure out how to navigate these hyperpolitical, emotional times,” said Robert Spector, author of The Nordstrom Way series of books.

For a certain segment of American consumers, shopping long has been a way to express political persuasions. Union members buy American cars, for instance, while religious conservatives favor Chik-fil-a and anti-globalization activists eschew Nike.

Retailers, for their part, routinely remove products from their shelves based not on ideology but on sales and fashion trends. But after a chippy election, partisans on both sides have taken to parsing the tiniest of changes to merchants’ inventories.

Ivanka Trump items disappeared from Burlington Coat Factory’s website this month, spawning headlines and Facebook debates.

Similar dramas have played out at other chains. For example, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, owned by the same company, instructed store workers to remove signs touting Ivanka Trump merchandise and to move the goods to less prominent locations.

And Nieman Marcus, Sears and Kmart removed Ivanka Trump items from their online offerings. Perhaps leery of risking the wrath of Trump and his supporters, the companies have kept quiet about the motivations behind the moves.

In the case of Nordstrom, a retailer that’s usually astutely apolitical, some wonder about the wisdom of pulling Ivanka Trump’s products from shelves. After 46 percent of voters supported Trump in November’s election, why risk antagonizing a large swath of the shopping public?

“It’s puzzling, because of the timing,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan. “If you drop the Ivanka line now, it is a political statement. Nobody at Nordstrom could have possibly believed that dropping it now is not a political statement.”

But Spector said the Nordstrom family, which holds nearly a quarter of the company’s shares, long has maintained political neutrality.

“They don’t make overt political statements,” Spector said. “The Nordstroms would like to sell to everybody, regardless of your political position. They’re the essence of democratic capitalism.”

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The debate forced Nordstrom devotee Katy Welsh to pick sides. Welsh, a commercial real estate broker in Boca Raton, said she didn’t vote for Trump but admires his daughter and was prepared to embrace his presidency.

“I believe in supporting our leaders. The election is over, and we should support him,” Welsh said. “But when it comes to Nordstrom, I’m a big fan.”

Welsh took to Facebook to say she’d still shop at Nordstrom, and she was startled when some of her Facebook friends lashed out at her position. Welsh wonders about the wisdom of bashing an employer in a tough industry, and she points to the struggles of such retailers as Macy’s, JCPenney and Sears.

“Do we want to add another one to that list because the president doesn’t like that they’re not selling a line any more?” Welsh said. “For a leader to potentially harm a business because they made a business decision about a line that wasn’t selling is ridiculous.”

Gordon sees Nordstrom’s decision as a political risk: Democrats won’t remember the move to drop Ivanka in a few years, but Republicans won’t forget, he said.

Yet the demographics of Nordstrom’s store network might prove forgiving. A map of Nordstrom’s locations looks curiously like the cartography of Clinton support.

Nearly two-thirds of Nordstrom’s 319 U.S. stores are in California, New York, Illinois and other states that voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump’s bitter rival in Nov. 8 election. Just one-third of Nordstrom and Nordstrom Rack locations are in states that voted for Trump.

Consider regional voting trends, and the demographics of Nordstrom’s footprint grow even more skewed. For instance, Florida is home to 23 Nordstrom stores, but many of them are in the South Florida counties that bucked the rest of the state by supporting Clinton. Even in solidly red Texas, Nordstrom stores are clustered in Dallas, Houston, Austin and El Paso, all areas carried by Clinton.

Unlike Wal-Mart, Kohls and other mainstream retailers, Nordstrom ignores wide chunks of Trump territory. The company operates no stores in eight states that voted for Trump. Arkansas, Montana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, West Virginia and Wyoming are home to nary a Nordstrom location, according to the retailer’s latest annual report.

Nordstrom might have ended its role as a purveyor of Ivanka Trump products, but the retailer hasn’t purged the name from its shelves. At least two pairs of Ivanka Trump shoes were available at the Nordstrom Rack at Palm Beach Outlets on Tuesday.

While Nordstrom hasn’t commented publicly on its decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, The Wall Street Journal reported that sales of Trump-branded items plunged 32 percent over the past year. Nordstrom is known for ruthlessly paring slow-selling inventory, and Nordstrom watcher Spector called sluggish sales the most logical reason for the merchant’s politically loaded change to its inventory.

“There’s a Nordstrom-ism that’s been around for years: ‘Sales are the truth,’” Spector said. “If it’s not working, they’re going to drop it. This is obviously an exceptional case, because of the publicity.”

The University of Michigan’s Gordon says Nordstrom would have been wise to avoid controversy.

“Even if they weren’t selling a ton of it, they didn’t have to drop the line,” Gordon said. “They could just place small, token orders, and nobody would know. It wouldn’t be a story.”

But some wonder whether President Trump’s Twitter tirade might backfire.

“Stores are now going to be afraid to pick up her line, because they can’t get rid of it if doesn’t work out,” Welsh said. “It’s a much bigger issue than being a Democrat or a Republican.”

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