In this age of growing superficial journalism, the mass media consistently ignores the other side of the story when it comes to consumer boycotts.
Much has been written, tweeted and ‘Facebooked’, for example, about the consumer boycott of Woolworths over their continued import of products from Israel.
What the media has missed, however, is the fact that the other side of this story is quite simply that this and other similar boycotts have achieved absolutely nothing except to often actually increase sales.
While the anti-Woolworths lobby is vociferous and gets all the media attention, the pro-Woolworths lobby just gets stronger behind the scenes.
If one looks back at the tirades against Woolworths in the past few years, some of them such as the Frankie’s Ginger Beer saga being quite justified, Woolworths profit performance over the period has been better than just about all of its competitors.
Competitors that might be just as guilty but who escape the wrath of the relatively tiny handful of detractors simply because Woolworths is top of the retail pops and therefore more vulnerable to consumer displeasure.
Going back in the years, remember when Pick n Pay went through a particularly challenging period when some of their products were poisoned. Once again, this had very little effect on the supermarket’s performance.
Earlier, when the United Sates invaded Iraq, the South African mass media featured angry anti-American Muslims in this country swearing to boycott brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
Six months later when Coca-Cola issued its annual sales figures for this region, their performance in the Western Cape had actually gone up. Purely as a result of a particularly hot summer.
However, the main reason that boycott didn’t work was simply because it is all very well grown-ups wanting to avoid drinking Cokes and eating burgers, but another thing entirely persuading their kids to do the same.
Round about the same time, the South African clothing industry was suffering massive factory closures and job losses due to cheap imports from China.
There were numerous attempts to get South Africa consumers to boycott Chinese clothing.
It didn’t work. Why? Simply because when it comes consumers anywhere in the world being able to get similar quality at a lower price, they can’t. The price is just far too compelling.
In essence, the consumer does not give a damn about where a product comes from as long as the quality and price are good. The US automobile industry is a classic example. And there is not a single Jaguar or Land Rover owner who gives a hoot about the fact that an Indian company owns these brands. And not a single wealthy person who cares that the Germans now own the iconic Rolls Royce.
But, there is another aspect to the Woolworths/Israeli products saga and that is for every angry anti-Israeli Muslim in South Africa there are probably many more pro-Israeli Jewish and neutral consumers who support Woolworths anyway and who really couldn’t care less what the origin is of the products they buy.
Consumers support retail brands because they either feel they are getting value or premium quality.
If indeed South African consumers were inclined to boycott retail brands and products from countries that practice racial discrimination, use child labour, perceived to be guilty of crimes against humanity or discriminate against women, then we would not see any products on our shelves from probably the entire Middle East, China, the entire Far East as well as the United States, the United Kingdom and the bulk of Africa.
Even during the latter stages of apartheid, when countries such as the US and UK withdrew their brands from the South African market, somehow those very products continued to be supplied to South Africa mostly through grey imports from the Far East.
So, while political boycotts might have some success, consumer boycotts have no effect whatsoever.
And the reason for this is what the South African mass media is ignoring in spite of it being a jolly good story even if it does demonstrate the high degree of global consumer apathy.
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