WASHINGTON — Back in October, Shannon Coulter was doing some late-night browsing on the Nordstrom website. Before long, the small-business owner had a nagging feeling about the department store's line-up of Ivanka Trump apparel and shoes — a brand she couldn't help but see in a different light amid the unfolding events of the presidential campaign.
Just days earlier, news had broken of the explosive Access Hollywood footage in which Donald Trump bragged about groping women without their consent.
"Something changed for me when the Trump tapes came out," Coulter recalled in an interview. "Those words were just ringing in my ears."
And so she decided to take action: Coulter began a campaign called Grab Your Wallet, which encourages shoppers to stay away from retailers that sell all manner of Trump-branded goods, as well as to avoid Trump properties such as golf courses and wineries. She maintains a meticulous spreadsheet online of the dozens of companies that should be boycotted, including notations about why they're on the list and updates about the inventory of Trump-branded merchandise they offer. Those that cease doing business with the Trumps are removed from the list.
Nordstrom said it did so because of falling sales, not politics.
The campaign has been chugging along for months, but it has come into a particularly bright spotlight in recent weeks, when big-name chains started to back away from Trump goods, including Neiman Marcus, Belk and, most prominently, Nordstrom — the store that encouraged Coulter to fire up her laptop in the first place.
None of the companies cited the boycott specifically as the reason for dropping the merchandise. Nordstrom said it did so because of falling sales, not politics.
Still, Coulter exemplifies the new and potent possibilities that social media presents for ordinary consumers and voters to catapult an idea for activism from their living rooms to like-minded people across the country — and to the center of the news cycle. The Women's March on Washington that took place on the day after the inauguration had a similarly humble beginning, with a woman in Hawaii impulsively creating a Facebook post that ricocheted around the Internet and fast gathered support.
Consumer activist was not exactly a familiar role for Coulter, 45, when she decided to launch the boycott.
"Like many college students, I was more politically minded back then. But that part of my life has been really dormant my entire adult years," Coulter said. "I was very much a straight-ahead career girl for the last 24 years, and it feels like that's changed now."
But now, Grab Your Wallet has practically become a full-time job: Coulter, a resident of the San Francisco Bay area, has outsourced all of her client work at her small marketing firm.
Source: Facebook page
That marketing background, she says, has been a critical component of her ability to grow Grab Your Wallet. For example, an early co-collaborator had been using the hashtag #fashionnotfascism to promote a similar idea. Coulter said she thought the idea was "brilliant," but also recognized quickly that it was "too strident and unwieldy for the average person."
Coulter's career also has given her experience creating social media content for brands, so she came into this with a feel for what grabs readers' attention in their newsfeeds, and what encourages them to share posts with their own followers. According to an analysis by Captiv8, a firm that studies social media influence, there have been more than 496,000 "engagements" — likes, retweets, and the like — on Twitter or Instagram posts that include #grabyourwallet. Captiv8 found that a significant share of those posts originate in California or New York, suggesting the campaign has gotten particularly strong traction in those states.
Coulter's day-to-day work on Grab Your Wallet comes in different forms: She regularly tracks how much online inventory individual retailers are carrying of Trump-related goods. And, perhaps most importantly, she spends time on Facebook and Twitter interacting with fellow boycotters. They often have the best tips on stores from which Trump merchandise has quietly disappeared, and she feels like members of the group gets more energized when she communicates with them directly.
There are also frequent decisions to be made about what companies should be on the list. Chains such as Lord & Taylor or Macy's easily make the cut because they carry Trump family merchandise. But other times, it is less cut-and-dried. Bookstores are generally spared, but that could change if any agree to host Ivanka Trump during her upcoming book tour. Belk has removed Ivanka Trump gear from its website, but not its brick-and-mortar stores, so it is still on the Grab Your Wallet list. Meanwhile, The Washington Post is "NOT being boycotted at this time," even though it is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, which makes the list for carrying Trump family products. On the Grab Your Wallet website, it says that decision came after a majority of boycott participants said in a poll that the Post should not be excluded. Neiman Marcus, Belk, Lord & Taylor, Macy's and Amazon did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While Coulter started the campaign as an outcry against Donald Trump's treatment of women, it has mushroomed into a more sprawling expression of anti-Trump sentiment. Some are worried about the conflict-of-interest issues associated with having president with such a tangled web of business ties in the White House. Others came into the fold after President Trump issued an executive order that barred refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States.
As Grab Your Wallet grows, so too do new challenges.
But even as the tent gets bigger, Coulter is determined to keep to goal the same: To not let it turn into an aimless funnel for outrage, but to continue to offer clear, actionable ways for companies to get out of boycotters' crosshairs. (In this case, to stop doing business with the Trumps.)
Some unsuccessful boycotts, she says, are "just created to punish companies, they're not created to help them evolve to a more ethical place."
As Grab Your Wallet grows, so too do new challenges. Coulter has occasionally been bombarded by vociferous e-mails from those who oppose the boycott. Also, a Facebook page has popped up that Coulter says is not affiliated with her campaign, but uses the Grab Your Wallet moniker and encourages people to boycott Trump goods. Coulter is frustrated that this page is hawking "Grab Your Wallet" T-shirts, because she worries it will send the wrong message about her initiative.
Retreating is not on the list of possibilities.
"It's so important to me that this not be tied to any desire to make money," Coulter said.
Coulter is still figuring out what's next for Grab Your Wallet: She hopes, at some point, not to be a one-woman band. And perhaps the campaign might grow to include other companies that aren't necessarily affiliated with the Trumps, but those that in some other way are perceived to be standing in the way of inclusivity. Retreating is not on the list of possibilities.
"I feel a seriousness of purpose that I've never felt before in my life," Coulter said.