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Vote with your feet does boycotting work?

This article first appeared in Moneywise November 2018. Moneywise was wound up so I have reproduced my article here.

To boycott or not to boycott? That is the question

What do you do if you still receive bad service, even after you have complained? As a consumer journalist I keep going until my Consumer Rights are met! But even if you do, what if you feel really strongly or don’t like the ethics of a company? Perhaps refuse to buy goods or to take part in the activity to convey condemnation, boycott.

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Why do people boycott?

Companies would do well to heed customers’ voices when they say they won’t return to a company due to poor service or their ethics. Many of us loathe Amazon, questioning its tax affairs, believing it is the killer of small business, treats its staff appallingly and unless complaining about something simple like faulty goods or a delivery, their customer service is shocking. Whilst there are often calls to boycott the likes of Amazon, Starbucks or Google, in reality it is almost impossible to do so and Amazon knows this, making it difficult for those of us with things to sell and want what is frequently the cheapest price.

Even if individuals do boycott Amazon does it make a difference? Probably not, in fact, definitely not. Sometimes though it’s just unrealistic to start movements to make a difference. Sometimes it’s about spreading the word, hitting them in the pocket or simply for a sense of justice.

When a few money bloggers were asked if they boycotted, the responses were interesting.

Hollie from Thriftymum says “There’s an independent handbag shop in my village (Strouds of Cottingham) where I had a “Pretty Woman moment”. I’d gone in and was browsing. When asked what I was looking for I explained I was after a tan leather satchel. The assistant pointed at a few in the window (neither tan nor leather). Then I spotted THE bag in a glass cabinet that formed part of the checkout. I asked if I could see it and she stood up, walked in front of it, thus blocking it from my sight(!) and said “Oh you won’t want that, it’s REAL leather so very expensive.” I bought the bag to prove I could afford it and loved it but I vowed never to go back due to the rudeness.”

Victoria Sully from LyliaRose recognises that she made little impact on New Look when she boycotted them for a year for their poor customer service after querying a voucher code. However, she felt that at least she had made a stand!

Elle Finlay, who writes the blog E.L. Feelsgood Vintage, is amongst those who boycott Starbucks and Google.She goes one further refusing to use “Google” as a verb for good measure too!

Sometimes it is a little harder to keep to your principles even when you try, showing the difficulty with boycotting.  Perry Wilson who writes the blog Stupidisthenorm boycotted Sports Direct because of Mike Ashley’s behaviour towards Newcastle United.  But a few months later he caved in when he needed a cheap pair of socks. “Money over principles”, he sighs.  He adds that a year on he is comfortable with himself but that the socks disintegrated 6 months later!

I doubt he is alone in putting money saving before principles.

Others keep to their principles when choosing to boycott. When Sky tried to increase the subscription for Joseph Seager of Thriftychap, he took action. He had been with Sky for eight years and his brother-in-law for three and was getting a better deal. Not sitting right with Joseph he cancelled and didn’t budge when Sky offered him 70%, discount a couple of days before the cut off either. He says he doesn’t miss the channels either!

How can you boycott?

But occasionally you hear of people playing a blinder. A few months on BBC Radio Scotland someone ‘phoned in regarding boycotting. It’s certainly time consuming but the satisfaction he must have felt surely would have been phenomenal!

This chap had a run in with the supermarket he used regularly due to their poor service. For the next six months he went to another supermarket and every time he went he kept the receipt. After the six months he totalled up all the receipts (you could just add the total to a spreadsheet each time you go so this would take a few seconds if you fancy copying this brilliance!) and wrote to the first supermarket’s CEO with copies of the receipts and the total of the loss to the business. Now that is how to do a boycott!

People often like to join a campaign of boycotting, feeling that it makes more of a difference when a large number of people join forces in supporting a particular cause. Undertaken on a large scale it is possible to hit a business’ bottom line or reputation.

But people are also prepared to take an individual stand too. Often this boils down to good old customer service, so companies would do well to heed this! Companies will never know what customers they are losing!

Do boycotts work?

Whether boycotts work depends on the desired outcome. Is it to raise awareness of an issue? Is it to hit a company’s sales figures? Is it to damage reputation?

One of the first reported boycotts in England goes back to 1971. When Parliament rejected the abolition of slavery, William Fox published an anti-sugar pamphlet selling 70,000 copies in four months. (Profits from sugar used in tea and cakes funded the Slave Trade). By 1972 400,000 British people were boycotting slave-grown sugar. It wasn’t until 1807 that Parliament outlawed the Slave Trade, but sales of sugar dropped by between a third and a half.

Baby Milk Action UK is a well-known established campaign. It works as part of a global network aiming to stop misleading marketing by the baby-feeding industry. It has worked for a number of years encouraging people to boycott Nestlé, arguing that Nestlé puts profits before health in the baby food sector. The campaign aims to give executives a financial reason to act on criticisms of its baby food marketing practices and has prompted Nestlé to modify its behaviour over the years. This demonstrates that boycotting can effect change. Emily Rowley from ThriftyFox joined the Nestlé boycott, as she felt it was important, even though she misses Smarties!

A spokesperson for Baby Milk Action said:

“In the past Nestlé refused to accept the validity of the World Health Assembly marketing requirements for these products – now it claims to do so While Nestlé marketing policies still fall short, the campaign has generally stopped Nestlé advertising infant formula (for use from birth) to parents and giving out free samples to mothers.”  

Supporters of the campaign established the Tap Water Awards which were given to Edinburgh Festival Fringe performers between 2001 and 2006, in a campaign of opposition to the high profile Perrier Awards (Perrier is owned by Nestle). In 2006 Perrier withdrew from sponsoring the awards.

However, Dr Kristian Niemietz, a member of the research team at the right-wing think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) says:

“One observation is that the responsiveness of big companies to boycotts (as well as social media witchhunts) shows something that’s obvious to us, but that should be counterintuitive for anti-capitalists (and most of the time, people calling for a boycott are anti-capitalist): Companies, especially large ones, are really concerned about their image. If you’re a free-marketeer, you’ll think, ‘Well, of course they are. They depend on their reputation and the goodwill of their customers.’ But if you’re an anti-capitalist, you believe that big corporations run the world, and that they can just do whatever they like without caring about anyone. By using boycotts, left-wing groups are therefore, in a sense, invalidating their own worldview.

For a boycott to work the target has got to be high profile and visible. A quick search of #boycott on Twitter shows people boycotting all over the place! But frequently it is a sole person encouraging others to join in their own personal cause! Most just get lost in the Twitter noise. As for Facebook, you name it there’s probably a page or group to boycott it! Finding one that has achieved its aims is more difficult although an aim of raising awareness is hard to evaluate.

Lush campaign picThe 2018 Lush SpyCops campaign regarding undercover police drew a lot of attention. Many people supported the campaign and others publicly stated their intention to boycott. Although it’s unknown if the directors anticipated the coverage, many people joined the #flushlush campaign. However, many of these were people who didn’t buy Lush products anyway and others showed their support. According to Brandwatch Lush sales went up by 13% over this period.

Dr Niemietz does however, give boycotters some credit. Although rarely sympathising with boycotter’s aims he sums up boycotting saying “It’s generally a good thing that companies are so responsive to public demands, and sensitive about their image. It shows that the consumer, not big corporations, runs the show.”

Poor Service

If you are thinking of boycotting a company because of the way they are handling your complaint about goods or services you may just need help worth complaining effectively. See Top 20 Tips for complaining effectively

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For more help, advice, tips, information and templates buy the How to Complain: The Essential Consumer Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results!



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By Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow

Consultant | Author | Speaker | Blogger | Presenter | Journalist
Helping to make, prevent and deal with complaints

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