Vote with your feet: Does boycotting work?

Helen Dewdney
13 November 2018

If a company is getting away with poor customer service, unethical practices or tax evasion, one thing you can do is vote with your feet. But does a boycott work? We explore some recent cases to see if we can really make a difference

What do you do if you receive bad customer service? You can complain and fight for your consumer rights. But what if that still doesn’t work or it doesn’t go far enough? Perhaps your treatment was so unjust or the company does something wrong that goes beyond your own experience and you want to let it know. What’s left? You can boycott it.

Why do people boycott?

Boycotting is a way of voting with your feet, of telling a company you’re not happy by withdrawing your business. But it can go beyond that. While taking away your custom is unlikely to hit a company’s bottom line, if done in unison with others it can start to make a difference. It can also start to affect a company’s reputation by drawing attention to what it is doing wrong.

When a few money bloggers were asked if they boycotted companies or services, this is what they said.

Hollie from Thrifty Mum battled shop snobbery
Hollie from Thrifty Mum battled shop snobbery

Hollie from ThriftyMum says “There’s an independent handbag shop in my village 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 by the checkout. I asked her if I could see it and she stood up, walked in front of it, 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 her rudeness.”

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

“I bought the bag to prove I could afford it and loved it, but I vowed never to go back due to her rudeness”

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

The problem with boycotting is that sometimes it is a little harder to keep to your principles even when you try. Perry Wilson, who writes the blog Stupidisthenorm, boycotted Sports Direct because of chief executive Mike Ashley’s behaviour as owner of 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 his decision – but the socks disintegrated after six months.

When Sky tried to increase the subscription for Joseph Seager of Thrifty Chap, he took action. He had been with Sky for eight years, while his brother-in-law who had been with the firm for three years was getting a better deal. Joseph cancelled and didn’t budge when Sky offered him a 70%, discount a couple of days before the cut-off. He says he doesn’t miss the Sky channels either.

How can you boycott?

For a company to sit up and notice, it generally takes more than just taking your custom elsewhere.

One way is to join a large campaign of boycotting, making your voice louder by speaking up together.

Sometimes it’s not just about affecting a company’s bottomline, it’s about doing what you think is right – or finding another way to make your voice heard.

People have been posting empty crisp packets back to Walkers to show their displeasure

On a BBC Radio Scotland phone-in on boycotting this year, one man called to say he had had a run-in with the supermarket he used regularly, due to its poor service. For the next six months, he went to a rival supermarket and kept the receipts.

He then totalled up all the receipts and wrote to the chief executive of his former supermarket with the receipts and the total loss to the business.

He may have been working alone, but it really turbo-boosted his chances of his boycott being noticed.

There are times when it can seem almost impossible to boycott something because it is so integral to our daily lives.

Perry's dislike of Mike Ashley led to a failed boycott of Sports Direct
Perry's dislike of Mike Ashley led to a failed boycott of Sports Direct

For example, there are some people who have concerns about the low level of tax paid by online retailing giant Amazon and the impact its prevalence is having on small UK businesses. Others have similar fears about Google’s tax record and dominance. However, a boycott on such ubiquitous and useful companies can seem all but impossible – and the inconvenience of losing them far greater than the realistic impact that one individual’s actions could have.

Sometimes campaigners find ways of showing their displeasure without having to give up something they like.

Postal workers have been baffled in recent weeks by a steady stream of empty crisp packets finding their way into the postal system.

It’s due to a campaign, instigated by petition website 38 Degrees, in protest against Walkers crisps use of non-recyclable packets.

Walkers announced earlier this year it would only make recyclable bags by 2025. In response, people have been posting empty packets back to Walkers to let it know they’re unhappy.

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? Or is it to damage reputation?

One of the first reported boycotts in England dates back to 1791. When Parliament rejected the abolition of slavery, campaigner William Fox published an anti-sugar pamphlet selling 70,000 copies in four months. Profits from sugar used in tea and cakes helped fund the slave trade. By 1792, 400,000 British people were boycotting slave-grown sugar. It wasn’t until 1807 that Parliament outlawed the slave trade, by which time sales of sugar had dropped by between a third and a half.

One of the most high-profile boycotts of recent times is that of Nestlé. Campaign groups, such as Baby Milk Action UK, have encouraged people to boycott the global brand over concerns about how it advertises baby food. The campaign, which aims to give executives a financial reason to act on criticisms of its marketing practices, says it has prompted Nestlé to modify its behaviour over the years.

Emily Rowley from ThriftyFox joined the Nestlé boycott, as she felt it was important, even though she says she misses her Smarties.

A Nestlé spokesperson says: ‘We understand that people feel strongly about a whole range of issues, such as baby health, because we do too. We have continuously evolved our policies, based on listening to the needs of families, governments, civil society and consumers, as well as our own experience. Our policy to market breastmilk substitutes responsibly is driven by five key principles: compliance, good governance, transparency, constructive engagement and continuous improvement.”

Dr Kristian Niemietz , head of health and welfare at right-wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, is sceptical about boycotters’ aims. But he adds: “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.”

Emily Rowley joined the Nestlé boycott
Emily Rowley joined the Nestlé boycott

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

Earlier this year, cosmetics chain Lush launched a campaign called SpyCops, which was intended to highlight the government-backed probe into alleged instances of undercover police overstepping the mark to infiltrate the lives of activists. However, many thought it was unfairly critical of the police and insulting to police officers, the vast majority of whom have nothing to do with the allegations.

Many people supported the campaign and others publicly stated their intention to boycott Lush, with the #flushlush campaign trending on social media. However, many of these were people who didn’t buy Lush products anyway and others showed their support. According to social media monitoring firm Brandwatch, Lush sales went up by 13% over this period.

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 to support a particular cause. Undertaken on a large scale, it is possible to hit the profit and/or reputation of a business.

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.

Helen Dewdney is a print, TV and radio journalist and the author of consumer rights website The Complaining Cow

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

what i do is when the post man/woman puts leaflets in the letterbox i save them then when i have a load i put them in the post box to see how they like it sometimes there are a few hundred leaflets,they give them to me i give them back.

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