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Belk reversal offers lessons for consumers

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A Kmart customer donates a few dollars to the Salvation Army bin on Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014. (Aileen Devlin/The Daily Reflector)

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Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The clang of the Salvation Army’s bells and the clink of coins in red kettles have returned to Belk stores after loyal shoppers expressed support for the charity’s Christmastime tradition.

Belk halted its partnership with the bell-ringing effort in hopes of promoting its Habitat for Humanity’s Home for the Holidays campaign, but that never passed the smell test. Donations for the Habitat fund drive are collected at the cash registers, while the Salvation Army bells ring outside store entrances. The latter posed no threat to the former — many shoppers are glad to support both worthy causes.

When news stories publicized Belk’s decision, consumers were quick to weigh in. Public pressure brought Belk management to its senses. “Over the weekend, our customers were loud and clear about their passion for the Salvation Army,” Belk public relations manager Tyler Hampton said. “And when our customers speak, we listen.”

Opponents of the bell-ringer ban won an election of sorts. One look at the polling — critical comments filling Belk’s Facebook and Twitter feeds — confirmed the contest wouldn’t even be close. The eligible voters were prospective Belk shoppers. The ballots were green and crisp, available in seven denominations.

Boycotts underscore a free-market truth — we vote with our wallets each time we fork over the cash or swipe the debit and credit cards. When we spend money, we’re contributing to a business’ bottom line, and by extension, the causes it chooses to support.

Merchants have to earn our vote of confidence at the cash register. Most of the time, a wide selection of wares, competitive prices and good customer service are enough. But when businesses wade into controversy, we’re more likely to spend our money with companies whose values mirror our own.

Few market forces match the raw power of consumer activism. It’s a fearsome form of pure democracy distilled to dollars and cents.

Belk’s backtrack on the bell-ringers should teach us two things. First, ordinary consumers have more influence than they realize, especially with social media acting as an amplifier. Second, consumer activism is capable of correcting bad business practices without government interference.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether a Colorado baker should be able to turn down custom cake commissions for same-sex weddings. The case will turn on whether creative cake-making is a form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protection or a purely commercial exercise subject to regulation under state nondiscrimination laws.

We could cite court opinions and split hairs for eons, or we could all agree that a sustained boycott would be a better strategy than siccing an army of petty bureaucrats on the business.

Boycotts use economic levers, not government force, to achieve their objectives. State sanctions breed resentment and long-running court battles, while consumer activism can coax a genuine change of heart.

Consumers must realize and harness the collective power they have to effect change in the marketplace. They also should wield that power responsibly. Voting with your wallet means rewarding those who do right, not just punishing those who do wrong. Following Belk’s unconditional surrender and guarantee of full support for the Salvation Army, shoppers should give Belk another chance to earn their business. 

Voting with our wallets also includes supporting nonprofits and charities that effect real, positive change in our community. The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are both excellent examples.

Not to cheapen Election Day tradition, but maybe cashiers should distribute “I Voted” stickers at the register. It might remind us that our hard-earned dollars buy a lot more clout than the groceries, apparel and goods for which we exchange them.

The Wilson Times

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