retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kate McMahon

The unlikely epicenter of this week’s social media firestorm is in Dodgeville, Wisconsin. More specifically, the headquarters of all-American clothing retailer Lands' End, where they no doubt have been monitoring the company's Facebook page and other websites wondering what new fires they'll have to put out.

The incendiary spark? Just that revolutionary notion of equal rights for women.

Yes, you read that correctly.

An interview with feminist icon Gloria Steinem in the company’s spring catalog prompted an irate backlash on Facebook from pro-life customers. Lands’ End panicked, pulled the interview from its website and apologized. That fanned a new set of flames, firing up consumers who happen to think the Equal Rights Amendment is worth fighting for.

Now seemingly everyone on both sides of the ideological spectrum is threatening to boycott Lands' End, and Facebook news feeds are flooded with angry emoji reactions.

The Steinem interview was supposed to be the first in a new “Legend Series” conducted by Lands’ End CEO Federica Marchionni, who wants to cultivate younger, more stylish customers. Steinem discussed challenges for women in the workplace, her journey and the fight for equal rights. The politically divisive topic of reproductive rights was never even mentioned in the piece.

No matter. All holy hell broke loose. Anti-abortion activists and Christian schools that order uniforms from Lands’ End Schools expressed outrage, a pro-life news agency jumped on the bandwagon and few hours later Lands’ End apologized to customers “offended” by the interview.

Again, the interview focused on Steinem’s “quest for women’s equality.” While Steinem has long advocated that abortion should be accessible and remain legal, that issue was not addressed in the interview.

The Lands’ End apology had an unintended effect. It prompted an onslaught of equally impassioned responses from customers who also were mad as hell.

As of yesterday, there were almost 11,000 comments after the apology post, and the majority were lashing out at Lands’ End for backing down. Most telling was the tally kept by Facebook and its new Reactions emojis, unveiled just last week to give users the opportunity to express more than just “like.”

Of the 3,500 responses to the official post withdrawing the interview, a whopping 2,500 users clicked the Angry emoji, 825 chose Like, 241 opted for Sad, 57 picked Love, 23 clicked Wow and 5 went for Haha.

Here’s what I think, from a business standpoint. First, before any company endorses a cause, signs a spokesperson or in this case chooses a “legend,” it has to do the requisite due diligence. Someone in the room needs to ask, "How will our customer base react?" For a traditional clothing supplier such as Lands’ End, which sells lots of school uniforms, Gloria Steinem probably was not the safest choice. (To be fair, despite the outcry from both sides, she probably also was not the most provocative choice.)

That said, once you commit to a cause or person, stick with it. Don’t pander to extremists - no matter what their ideology. It’s worth noting that more and more mainstream retailers are publicly taking stands on heated social issues such as the legalization of gay marriage, gun control and removing merchandise with the Confederate flag, even if it means losing some customers. Lands’ End only has itself to blame for allowing a brush fire to become a conflagration.

On a personal note, as a woman and a mother of two, I’m still stunned that anyone would find the quest for equal rights offensive. Last I checked, it was not a “divisive political or religious issue” to treat women – or anyone - equally. The men I know feel the same way.

Despite its all-American apparel, I think Lands’ End stance is decidedly un-American. You can count as a former customer.

Comments? As always, send them to me at kate@morningnewsbeat.com .
KC's View:
I want to weigh in on this, if you don't mind.

To me, so much of this story reflects the intolerance of today's culture and politics. I've read the Steinem interview, and I don't see anything in it that I wouldn't want my daughter to read and take to heart ... there is absolutely nothing controversial about it. And yet, because she holds a position on reproductive rights that, admittedly, is a divisive issue in this country (though polls suggest that a majority of Americans believe it should be legal in all, most or some cases), she is demonized and Lands' End is demonized. In other words, she didn't pass some sort of cultural purity test, and therefore, she must not be heard from.

I would feel the same way, incidentally, if liberals rose up in arms if Lands' End did an interview with a conservative "legend" who, let's say, talked about how religious values are relevant in the modern world.

For the record. I suspect I'd fail any cultural purity test administered by either side. And I'm proud of it. I firmly believe what the great Pete Hamill once said, that ideology is a poor substitute for thought.

My feeling always has been that I learn both from the people I agree with and the people I disagree with. When we stop listening to people with whom we disagree, we stop learning.

I feel sort of bad for Federica Marchionni, who came to Lands' End after serving as North American president of Dolce & Gabbana ... a very different kind of company. She's just gotten a lesson in political correctness, circa 2016.

I'm not really surprised, though ... except by two things. One is that anybody actually reads interviews included in paper catalogs. And the other is that Steinem is pictured wearing Lands' End clothing. Betcha it's the first time...