Boycott Of Target Over Bathroom Rules No Big Deal: Experts Say Store Will Emerge Unscathed

Conservatives outraged over Target’s inclusive bathroom policies can sign all the online petitions they want, but chances are, none of it will leave a mark on the retail giant.

Just last week, Target announced on its website that transgender employees and customers were welcome to use the restroom or fitting room that corresponds with their gender identity, if it differs from their biological identity. The new bathroom policy was in response to North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom law.” North Carolina’s House Bill 2 eliminates “local non-discrimination protections for LGBT people.” It also seeks to force trans people to use the bathroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate in schools and other publicly-owned buildings, rather than the gender with which they identify.

Target, however, refuses to let that happen in their own stores and made a stand for equality.

“Inclusivity is a core belief at Target. It’s something we celebrate. We stand for equality and equity, and strive to make our guests and team members feel accepted, respected and welcomed in our stores and workplaces every day.

“We believe that everyone—every team member, every guest, and every community—deserves to be protected from discrimination, and treated equally. Consistent with this belief, Target supports the federal Equality Act, which provides protections to LGBT individuals, and opposes action that enables discrimination.

“Given the specific questions these legislative proposals raised about how we manage our fitting rooms and restrooms, we felt it was important to state our position.”

Target’s stand against the so-called “bathroom law” created a massive controversy, with opposition from right-wing and evangelical groups. Those who supported the North Carolina law, along with similar laws that are being advanced in other states, are outraged over Target’s policy. Soon, after the announcement the American Family Association, a group that promotes fundamentalist Christianity and opposes same-sex marriage, began circulating a petition on-line, asking supporters to boycott Target.

According to Fox News, the petition has over a million signatures. And there is evidence that the overwhelming online fury at Target could translate into financial trouble for the retail giant. New poll data from YouGov BrandIndex shows that Target’s reputation has fallen by nine points since the inclusive bathroom policy was made public, with a slightly more negative perception being held by women. The same study also found that the percentage of customers willing to shop at Target the next time they needed to go shopping fell by four percentage points, from 42 percent to 38 percent.

“It’s meaningful, meaning it’s statistically significant,” said YouGov BrandIndex CEO Ted Marzilli.

Marzilli said Target “became a lightning rod” because its strong stance against the transgender bathroom law taps into the broader LGBT issues in the United States.

“This is more than just about Target. This is about a political debate that’s been brewing over the last couple of months. The reality is I think Americans are uncertain about this — or there are many that are certain, but on both sides of the issue.”

As to why there has been such a push-back against allowing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with, Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, Inc., a strategic public relations firm that focuses on the LGBT market, suggested that the strong support has arisen from advocates of the bathroom law successfully framing it as an issue of safety.

Witeck discussed the push-back against Target with NBC News, addressing both the momentum that the Target boycott has generated, as well as its likely effectiveness — or ineffectiveness.

“They’ve got the upper hand in terms of a message that works… and they’re using it very effectively,” he said of those ignoring the exclusive bathroom laws and, instead, implementing policies that are LGBT-friendly. “More corporations are going to push back.”

And so far, Witeck has been proven right, as more companies come forth and announce that customers and employees are welcome to use the bathrooms and fitting rooms that correspond with their gender identity rather than their birth certificate. And this is partially why Target has little to fear from conservative outrage and petition signatures.

As more businesses push back against the bathroom law, responses will shift the spotlight away from Target, Marzilli says.

“I think you’ll see a reversion back towards normal.”

Business analysts believe the bathroom petition will simply blow over, leaving little to no damage to Target.

“I don’t foresee this having a material impact on sales or earnings,” said Joe Feldman, senior managing director at Telsey Advisory Group.

History shows that there is little evidence that companies that are boycotted actually suffer specific losses, Witeck says.

“If you look historically at corporations attacked or boycotted, there’s no empirical or market evidence that they ever suffered any specific losses. None of these boycotts have legs, they don’t last for a long time.”

In fact, Target’s inclusive polices may even be a benefit to the company, as it increases its reputation with millennial shoppers. Feldman certainly believes that their stance could be helpful in that area.

“To the extent that Target is trying to resonate with millennials … presumably, this helps promote that,” Feldman said.

Because of that, Target’s position on equality is actually a relatively safe one to have, and the retail giant will likely shrug this controversy off and continue to dominate the market as the second largest retailer in the United States.

[Photo by Bloomberg/Contributor/Getty Images]