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Where American Retailers Fear To Tread

As consumers search for value, retail giants are also grappling with the issue of constantly evolving family values worldwide. While some European stores take a strong lead on advertising to gay couples, U.S. retailers are more cautious.

A billboard advertisement for the Swedish furniture giant Ikea has provoked some heated response from the political ruling class in Italy, a traditionally Catholic country. But Ikea clearly believes its customers are on-side. The ad declares: “We are open to all families…With us you will feel at home. What we want to do is make life easier for everyone, every family, every couple, whoever they are.”

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When the ad was unveiled last month, an article in Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the family of Italy’s center-right Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, called it a shock campaign that was more about marketing than gay rights. (Ikea was unavailable for comment.)

Last weekend, Italy’s Secretary of State for Family Policy Carlo Giovanardi speculated that the ad’s use of the word “family” be part of a campaign to recognize same-sex marriage. (There is no civil marriage or civil partnership for same-sex couples in Italy.)

Retail consultant Jeff Green says these kinds of social issues are becoming increasingly important here too. “It figures that a store with its headquarters in a Scandinavian country would be inclusive,” he says, citing Sweden’s recognition of same-sex marriage. “Ikea knows its customer base worldwide is diverse and it will never exclude anybody. Sophisticated global brands tend to be more proactive in donating to social causes.”

Green cites Estee Lauder’s global M.A.C. Aids Fund, which began in 1994. “Increasingly, there’s a backlash against stores that are not so broad-based,” he adds.

In the U.S., Ikea spokeswoman Christine Whitehawk says the retailer has carried ads featuring gay couples. “Our advertising looks to reflect real life, everyday living situations,” she says.

Scott Krugman, spokesperson for the Washington-based National Retail Federation, says trying to please all religious, social and political demographics is a challenge for all companies, particularly for retailers who work so closely with the consumer.

“By and large what retailers do is ultimately take the cue from their customers and try to keep their finger on the pulse,” he says. “This could be over anything from political and charitable donations to ‘Happy Holidays’ versus ‘Merry Christmas’. Retailers don’t take these decisions lightly. Passions run deep.”

Target is a case in point. It recently ran into this exact problem last month when Lady Gaga canceled plans to first offer her latest album, “Born This Way,” exclusively at Target stores in the U.S. The singer allegedly cut ties with the company because of Target contribution to MN Forward, a political action committee that supported Tom Emmer, a 2010 Minnesota gubernatorial candidate who is opposed to same-sex marriage.

Jessica Carlson, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota-based retailer tells Pay Dirt that the company was disappointed by the singer’s decision and says it recognized the effect of the MN Forward donation and says it apologized for its impact on customers and staff.

“Target supports inclusivity and diversity in every aspect of its business,” she says. “Target believes in equality, does not discriminate and is not anti-LGBT.  Target is committed to creating an environment where team members and guests feel welcome, valued and respected.”

Carlson says Target supports groups such as Project 515, National Gay Lesbian Task Force, Out & Equal Workplace Summit and the Rainbow Families Coalition and supports the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. Target features a same-sex couple in baby advertising on Target.com [under this “ABCs Of Strollers” tab on its website], but it hasn’t carried same-sex couples in billboard or newspaper advertisements in the same way as Ikea.

Wal-Mart doesn’t take Ikea’s European route on advertising either. Plus, Green says the Arkansas-based retailer is particularly selective about what kinds of magazines and books it stocks.

But Wal-Mart spokesman Phillip Keene says it carries a variety of magazine and book titles “based on customer demand,” and offers LGBT-related titles online. Keene says the retailer’s advertising strategy is geared toward conveying its low prices. He says Wal-Mart has  awarded grants to LGBT organizations as part of its overall focus and strategy, but adds, “Walmart will not make corporate contributions to support or oppose highly controversial issues unless they directly relate to our ability to serve our customers.”

Do you take corporate contributions or a retailer’s advertising strategy into account when choosing where to shop?


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    • I look at how a corporation behaves and what causes it supports before I shop there. I don’t shop at Wal Mart because I don’t want my neighbors to have their jobs lost to some Chinese manufacturer. I would rather not purchase the item at all , or purchase a IS made one, rather than purchase it at a store whose policies are detrimental to my country. I cannot apply this sort of thinking to everything I do, but I believe that even a little can make a difference, if diligently applied over the course of years.

    • 04/26/2011

      Hey! If your Listening to Berlusconi and offended by IKEA’s Adds – you have Waaaay!! to much time
      on your hands.

    • La La Oink !!

    • Personally, I look at many issues when shopping or doing business with companies. For example, I don’t shop at WalMart due to well publicized labor issues. I stopped doing business with Fifth Third Bank after a front page newspaper article in my local paper reported that the bank’s shareholders explicitly voted to omit sexual orientation from its anti-discrimination policy. Why would I want to support a company that will fire an employee simply for being gay? Why would I want to help the company earn returns for these shareholders? I don’t research these issues before shopping, but when I become aware of problems, I tend to remember them and potentially change my actions accordingly. All donations from companies come from revenues earned from customers. I wouldn’t work with a dishonest home repair contractor or a dishonest car repair shop… how are large corporations any different?

    • No. If you really look at all those things before you go shop at someplace you have a little too much time on your hands.

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  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.