Our Opinion: Belk’s swift reversal shows consumers still wield immense power

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The clang of the Salvation Army’s bells and the clink of coins in red kettles have returned to Belk stores after loyal shoppers expressed support for the charity’s Christmastime tradition.

Executives at the Charlotte-based department store chain hope another sound — the ringing of cash registers — will join the cacophony.

Belk executed a swift about-face after its decision to banish bell-ringers from its stores drew widespread condemnation from consumers and vows to launch a boycott. The company announced the policy change from its official Twitter account Saturday.

“Christmas truly is the giving season,” the tweet read, “and we’d like to welcome Salvation Army bell ringers to all 294 Belk stores. Merry Christmas!”

Belk previously had answered queries about its bell-ringer ban by touting its partnership with Habitat for Humanity’s Home for the Holidays campaign, but that never passed the smell test. Donations for the Habitat fund drive are collected at the cash registers, while the Salvation Army bells ring outside store entrances. The latter posed no threat to the former — many shoppers are glad to support both worthy causes.

When news stories publicized Belk’s Grinch-like behavior, consumers were quick to weigh in. Public pressure brought Belk management to its senses, and like Dr. Seuss’ redeemable Christmas thief, the retailer’s heart grew three sizes in a day.

“Over the weekend, our customers were loud and clear about their passion for the Salvation Army,” Belk public relations manager Tyler Hampton said. “And when our customers speak, we listen.”

Opponents of the bell-ringer ban won an election of sorts. One look at the polling — critical comments filling Belk’s Facebook and Twitter feeds — confirmed the contest wouldn’t even be close.

The eligible voters were prospective Belk shoppers. The ballots were green and crisp, available in seven denominations.

Boycotts underscore a free-market truth — we vote with our wallets each time we fork over the cash or swipe the debit and credit cards. When we spend money, we’re contributing to a business’ bottom line, and by extension, the causes it chooses to support.

Merchants have to earn our vote of confidence at the cash register. Most of the time, a wide selection of wares, competitive prices and good customer service are enough. But when businesses wade into controversy, we’re more likely to spend our money with companies whose values mirror our own.

Few market forces match the raw power of consumer activism. It’s a fearsome form of pure democracy distilled to dollars and cents.

Belk’s backtrack on the bell-ringers should teach us two things. First, ordinary consumers have more influence than they realize, especially with social media acting as an amplifier. Second, consumer activism is capable of correcting bad business practices without government interference.

The U.S. Supreme Court is weighing whether a Colorado baker should be able to turn down custom cake commissions for same-sex weddings. The case will turn on whether creative cake-making is a form of free speech entitled to First Amendment protection or a purely commercial exercise subject to regulation under state nondiscrimination laws.

We could cite court opinions and split hairs for eons, or we could all agree that a sustained boycott would be a better strategy than siccing an army of petty bureaucrats on the business.

Boycotts use economic levers, not government force, to achieve their objectives. State sanctions breed resentment and long-running court battles, while consumer activism can coax a genuine change of heart from the most unrepentant Scrooge.

Consumers must realize and harness the collective power they have to effect change in the marketplace. They also should wield that power responsibly. Voting with your wallet means rewarding those who do right, not just punishing those who do wrong. It means choosing to shop local and supporting small businesses whenever possible.

Following Belk’s unconditional surrender and guarantee of full support for the Salvation Army, some shoppers irked by the initial misstep have said they’ll continue to stay away. They’ve achieved their goal and have nothing left to prove. They should take yes for an answer and give Belk another chance to earn their business.

Voting with our wallets also includes supporting nonprofits and charities that effect real, positive change in our community. The Salvation Army and Habitat for Humanity are both excellent examples.

Not to cheapen Election Day tradition, but maybe cashiers should distribute “I Voted” stickers at the register. It might remind us that our hard-earned dollars buy a lot more clout than the groceries, apparel and goods for which we exchange them.