Elections have emerged as a unique marketing opportunity for retailers. This year is no different, although — with the world gripped by a pandemic, the economy in a recession and the U.S. shaken by racist incidents, roiled by protest and battered by weather and wildfires that many blame on climate change — the stakes seem higher.
As election day approaches, that atmosphere could be undermining consumer confidence. Morgan Stanley analysts led by Kimberly Greenberger in a Sept. 16 note included the election in their list of short-term headwinds. The same day, Wells Fargo analysts led by Zachary Fadem warned that it could impact retail sales numbers.
"While [year-over-year] compares ease in the coming months and employment gradually improves, we see potential for a choppy finish to 2020 given concerns of a potential COVID second wave/vaccine, presidential election, and passing of another stimulus package," Fadem wrote in emailed comments.
Not all analysts agree, however. Deloitte researchers haven't found evidence of elections affecting consumer sentiment, according to Rod Sides, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP, and U.S. retail, wholesale and distribution leader.
Electioneering is also an opportunity for retailers to take some action at a time when many if not most of their customers want them to take a stand. Time to Vote — an organization working with businesses to increase voter participation — has become a clearinghouse for corporations that want to get involved. Several retailers are participating, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Backcountry, Best Buy, Diane von Furstenberg, Dick's Sporting Goods, Eileen Fisher, Gap, Glossier, Harbor Freight Tools, J. Crew, Levi Strauss & Co., Macy's, Madewell, Nike, Obey Clothing, Patagonia, Reformation, Steve Madden, Stitch Fix, Target, The North Face, Timberland, Walmart and Warby Parker.
A marketing opportunity
Even for retailers providing voters with resources like voter registration and poll maps, the election is a marketing opportunity.
At Gap Inc., the company touted its campaign, Stand United, as the first effort from newly minted chief marketing officer Mary Alderete. Calling it a "360 marketing push," Gap's effort includes a dedicated voter registration page, $25,000 in donations to both When We All Vote and Rock the Vote, music, speeches by activists and a limited edition apparel capsule.
The company's Old Navy banner is paying employees who work at the polls on Election Day. Levi's, also with merch, enlisted celebrities to encourage voter registration and turnout. Voters can also register at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in Manhattan.
American Eagle Outfitters' namesake and Aerie brands also released special election merchandise, with 100% of sales benefiting non-partisan youth voter organization HeadCount, and it runs a Vote 2020 Action Center to register to vote, sign up for election reminders "and learn about even more ways to make a difference," according to a company email.
Nordstrom also has such a collection, and is working with the National Urban League "for this election and beyond to support our mission to provide economic empowerment and educational opportunities for underserved Americans," according to a statement from Marc Morial, the group's president and CEO.
"In a year marked with such uncertainty, amid a pandemic and social unrest, our country's future — and our collective role in shaping it — has never been more important," Richard Johnson, CEO of Foot Locker, also a Rock the Vote partner, said in a statement.
Some retailers, like luggage e-retailer Away, are giving employees Election Day off, or at least giving them extra time. Others are taking approaches tightly tied to their own products. Period underwear company Thinx, for example, is giving away pairs of its underwear to Election Day poll workers across the country, and sleepwear retailer Lunya is giving out "voted, in bed" stickers to those who request ballots through its website.
It may not be surprising that, as mass merchants, the election support efforts from Target and Walmart are steadfastly neutral, focused primarily on voter resources. Others have taken a different approach.
The poster child for unabashed activism is Patagonia, which remains politically active, especially around environmental protection and climate change, well before and well after the polls open or close. The retailer has an interactive map calling out key Senate races and various politicians' stances on the issues, as well as opportunities to register to vote and otherwise get involved.
The company also recently made its position plain through some of its clothing tags, which read, "Vote the assholes out."