Small-busi­ness own­ers find­ing pol­i­tics tick­lish

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - BUSINESS & FARM - CONSTANCE GUSTKE

One win­ter’s day, Ni­cole Mor­gen­thau re­ceived an email that jolted her. She owns Finch Knit­ting and Sewing Stu­dio in Lees­burg, Va., and the note threat­ened her beloved store with a po­ten­tial boy­cott.

An an­gry sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump was com­pil­ing a list of busi­nesses openly hos­tile to cus­tomers who voted for him. The ques­tion: Was Finch Knit­ting “an anti-elec­tion es­tab­lish­ment?”

Mor­gen­thau searched her brain. Her 4-year-old store, which is bright and cozy, had never en­dorsed a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date. She had, how­ever, listed the store on the Pussy­hat Project site, of­fer­ing knit­ting sup­plies like pink yarn and knit­ting nee­dles along with in­struc­tions on how to knit the cat-ear caps that were pop­u­lar at the Women’s March in Wash­ing­ton af­ter the in­au­gu­ra­tion. Still, she had not pub­li­cized the march it­self in her store or on the shop’s Face­book page.

“The busi­ness is my baby,” Mor­gen­thau said. “I was im­me­di­ately wor­ried about it be­ing threat­ened.”

Big re­tail­ers in­clud­ing L.L. Bean, New Bal­ance and Nord­strom have re­cently been caught in the cross hairs of po­lar­iz­ing pol­i­tics that have af­fected sales.

But un­like cor­po­ra­tions with cri­sis-man­age­ment pro­fes­sion­als at their dis­posal, small-busi­ness own­ers have to rely on their own wits to re­spond and sal­vage sales and re­la­tion­ships.

Mor­gen­thau re­sponded by email to the Trump sup­porter, hop­ing to build rap­port. “We are not and never have been hos­tile to any hu­man be­ing,”

Mor­gen­thau’s let­ter be­gan. It ended with these words: “Just re­mem­ber you be­long here.”

Next Mor­gen­thau posted the threat­en­ing let­ter and her re­sponse on the shop’s Face­book page, which ended up get­ting hun­dreds of sup­port­ive com­ments from peo­ple across the coun­try. She also posted in­for­ma­tion with the lo­cal busi­ness as­so­ci­a­tion.

“There needed to be some kind of pub­lic record,” said Mor­gen­thau, whose busi­ness logged $389,000 in sales last year. “And I also felt that my lo­cal busi­ness com­mu­nity should know.”

A cri­sis most likely was averted by her con­cil­ia­tory ac­tions. Boy­cotters never ap­peared. In­stead, sup­port­ive cus­tomers be­gan flood­ing into her store, some com­ing from other states. Week­end sales be­gan soar­ing more than 60 per­cent.

In this era when emo­tions are run­ning high and even ba­sic busi­ness de­ci­sions can be per­ceived as politi­cized, busi­ness own­ers and mar­keters of-

fer sev­eral ex­am­ples on how to avoid or re­spond to boy­cotts and po­lit­i­cal is­sues.

Boy­cotts are an Amer­i­can tra­di­tion dat­ing back to the Bos­ton Tea Party. The term wasn’t used un­til the 1880s, though, when an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist in Ire­land pop­u­lar­ized the name rather than “os­tracism,” the pre­vail­ing word.

“The term ‘boy­cott’ spread like wild­fire,” said Lawrence Glick­man, a Cor­nell Univer­sity his­tory pro­fes­sor. “And within three months, it was be­ing used in Salt Lake City.”

From then on, boy­cotts — rang­ing from the Jim Crow-era boy­cott of street­cars in the early 1900s to the mass civil-rights de­mon­stra­tions of the 1960s — have been an Amer­i­can sta­ple. “We’re in an­other mo­ment like that again,” Glick­man said.

Small busi­nesses ben­e­fit from hav­ing some ad­van­tages. “Buy lo­cal” cam­paigns have gained steam in re­cent years, help­ing lift small-busi­ness sales and cre­at­ing stronger com­mu­ni­ties.

“Con­versely, any­thing big is bad right now,” said Thomas O’Guinn, a pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin-Madi­son’s busi­ness school. “Any­thing small is con­sid­ered dif­fer­ently, since there’s no face­less be­he­moth.” Cus­tomers, he added, are also more apt to know store em­ploy­ees or even the owner.

Even grass-roots boy­cott ef­forts, like the site and hash­tag #GrabYourWal­let, which has gone af­ter Trump-re­lated prod­ucts, do not usu­ally take aim at small busi­nesses.

Still, small-scale ef­forts to shun a lo­cal busi­ness can di­rectly af­fect the bot­tom line. “Small busi­nesses are liv­ing on the edge,” said Mau­rice Sch­weitzer, a pro­fes­sor of op­er­a­tions, in­for­ma­tion and de­ci­sions at the Whar­ton School of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. “Two months of bad sales can send them un­der. So the chal­lenge is dif­fi­culty adapt­ing.”

Some busi­ness own­ers, how­ever, have been able to care­fully bal­ance their po­lit­i­cal be­liefs with the de­mands of run­ning and own­ing a busi­ness.

Cherie Corso, owner of the e-com­merce site G2or­gan­ics. com, has been in busi­ness for seven years. Her com­pany sells beauty prod­ucts with fewer chem­i­cals. Corso works with chemists to cre­ate her prod­ucts and is adding new items like or­ganic Hi­malayan soap to her site.

She is also a Trump sup­porter, and she posted a pic­ture on her web­site of Trump with a quartz crys­tal that she gave him dur­ing a book sign­ing at Trump Tower. The re­sult: G2’s Face­book page has been in­un­dated with hun­dreds of neg­a­tive mes­sages for the past few years.

For the most part, how­ever, the de­ci­sion has been a wash for her bot­tom line. Now, busi­ness mostly comes from Repub­li­can-lean­ing states like Texas and less from Demo­crat­i­clean­ing states like New York.

“We’re only go­ing through life once,” said Corso, a for­mer model. “And I’m not afraid to put my po­lit­i­cal views on my web­site. For ev­ery cus­tomer, I’ve lost, I’ve gained one.”

Some on­line busi­nesses have been fully pre­pared to court con­tro­versy, re­gard­less of the ef­fect on sales.

Mitch Gold­stone, co-founder of ScanMyPho­tos, an ecom­merce com­pany that dig­i­tizes fam­ily pho­tos, has al­ways taken strong po­lit­i­cal stances, un­afraid of how it could af­fect his 26-year-old busi­ness based in Irvine, Calif.

He even ap­peared on CNN in 2015, af­ter Trump de­clared his can­di­dacy, to ex­plain why he was op­posed to him. These ac­tions re­sulted in hun­dreds of an­gry phone calls for a few days, he said.

Still, Gold­stone did not back down from his out­spo­ken­ness. He of­fered to scan pho­tos free for all cus­tomers for one month if Trump won the gen­eral elec­tion.

Gold­stone kept his word. And ScanMyPho­tos has now scanned thou­sands of pho­tos, he said, and won over some Trump sup­port­ers as pay­ing cus­tomers.

In gen­eral, though, ex­perts ad­vise small-busi­ness own­ers to avoid pol­i­tics. Some po­ten­tial boy­cotts of un­wit­ting tar­gets, like Finch Knit­ting, turn out for the bet­ter, but it had the back­ing of a com­mu­nity. In­stead, to raise vis­i­bil­ity, vol­un­teer work can help busi­nesses, ex­perts ad­vise.

“Small brands should stay out of pol­i­tics,” said Robert Pas­sikoff, founder of the mar­ket­ing re­search firm Brand Keys in New York City. “They’re not brand eq­uity build­ing blocks. And you can end up in re­ac­tive spin mode.”

O’Guinn, the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin pro­fes­sor, echoed Pas­sikoff. “Brand­ing has be­come so politi­cized,” he said. “It’s too big a risk.”

Ex­perts also rec­om­mend build­ing strong cus­tomer re­la­tion­ships. That ef­fort served Mor­gen­thau well in a tough time. “Knit­ting is a com­mu­nity craft,” she said. “And ev­ery­thing we of­fer is a way to have re­la­tion­ships.”

The New York Times/MATT ROTH

Ni­cole Mor­gen­thau, owner of Finch Knit­ting and Sewing Stu­dio in Lees­burg, Va., said a sup­porter of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump threat­ened a boy­cott of her shop. She sur­vived the cri­sis.

The New York Times/MATT ROTH

Ni­cole Mor­gen­thau ear­lier this month hangs an Amer­i­can flag out­side her knit­ting shop.

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