Target (TGT) is under fire from religious groups who are calling on consumers to boycott the retailer over its transgender bathroom policy. Some are telling shoppers to head to Walmart (WMT) instead, but it's unlikely any of this will impact either company's bottom line.
The American Family Association has gathered nearly 700,000 signatures on a petition calling for a boycott of Target. The nonprofit Christian group launched the call in reaction to Target's April 19 announcement that it welcomes transgender team members and shoppers to use the bathroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender.
"Clearly, Target's dangerous new policy poses a danger to wives and daughters. We think most customers will agree. And we think the average Target customer is willing to pledge to boycott Target stores until it makes protecting women and children a priority," the petition reads. The proposed solution: a unisex bathroom "for the trans community and for those who simply like using the bathroom alone."
Faith Driven Consumer, an advocacy group that works to "achieve marketplace and workplace equality" for Christian consumers, on Tuesday jumped onto the #BoycottTarget bandwagon with its own initiative encouraging shoppers to head to alternative destinations. Dubbed #BUYcottWalmart, it urges consumers to do business with other brands -- namely, Walmart.
FDC also highlights Hobby Lobby, Bed Bath & Beyond and Dick's Sporting Goods, among others, as acceptable alternatives that rate higher than target on its "Faith Equality Index," which scores companies based on compatibility with religious values.
"We certainly respect that there are a wide variety of perspectives and opinions," said Molly Snyder, director of communications at Target. "As a company that firmly stands behind what it means to offer our team an inclusive place to work -- and our guests an inclusive place to shop -- we continue to believe that this is the right thing for Target."
While the religious hoopla has caused a media frenzy, especially with the heated battle over North Carolina's transgender law currently underway, it's not likely to have an enormous impact on sales.
"I don't think, at this point, it's going to be an impact on Target's financial results," said Efraim Levy, an analyst at S&P Global Market Intelligence who covers Target. "Maybe it will be an impact on what their policy is, which could ignite a bigger debate, but at this point, I don't think that many people are going to stop buying at Target because of bathroom policy."
Joe Agnese, an analyst covering Walmart at S&P Global Market Intelligence, said he can't imagine it will be extremely important for Walmart's earnings, either.
"I've not noticed or can remember a time when boycotts have had a negative impact, or positive, depending if it's a competitor, on their sales," he said. "It's a very large company, and there hasn't been one that represented a significant percentage of their customer base to make a difference."
The sheer size of companies like Target and Walmart makes it hard for boycotts to really pack any punch. Nearly three-quarters of a million might sound like a lot of customers, but the company has nearly half as many employees at 341,000.
A similar religion-driven boycott of Starbucks last year over its plain red holiday cups, while noisy on social media, does not appear to have been detrimental to sales. For its fiscal first quarter, the company reported a 9% increase in comparable store sales, driven by strong holiday performance. In an investor call, CEO Howard Schultz called the period "the strongest holiday in our history."
"This idea of making people think that you have this magic power over retailers just isn't there, especially with global brands," said Bob Phibbs, CEO of the Retail Doctor, a New York retail consultancy.
He said the AFA's petition is largely a marketing ploy, noting that Target signed on to support the Equality Act (a congressional bill that amends the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to include sexual orientation and gender identity) months ago.
"Retailers have much bigger things to worry about than this issue, which is being trumped up like it's something important," he said. "It comes down to consumption and patterns of behavior and pricing, which are much more fundamental."
In a February interview with TheStreet, FDC founder Chris Stone made the argument that he believes faith-driven consumers can actually give companies -- specifically, Walmart -- a boost. He said what he estimates to be a market with $2 trillion of spendable income on an annual basis could be a boon to the retailer if it would make a more direct appeal to the group and sees them as a good fit already.
"Culturally, there is a synergy between Walmart and faith-driven consumers," he said.
Walmart did not return request for comment.
Investors, too, are looking at fundamentals -- not the sideshow.
"We find shares attractive and believe the company can continue its transformation efforts through investing in strategic growth initiatives while maintaining profitability," said TheStreet's Jim Cramer, who owns Target in his Action Alerts Plus charity portfolio.
Target is not the first company to be caught in the AFA's crosshairs. In fact, it has had run-ins with numerous companies in the past, including Walmart. In 2006, the association told shoppers to boycott Walmart's post-Thanksgiving sales because of its outreach to some gay-rights organizations. More recently, the association encouraged consumers to stop using PayPal after it withdrew its expansion plans in Charlotte, North Carolina.