Retailers including Walmart Inc. that take a stand on nearly any social or political issue risk coming under fire from activists and should plan in advance for such an event, marketing experts say.
Walmart rival Target Corp. drew a heated response recently after setting up Pride Month items and displays at the front of its stores, just as it's done every June for at least the last 10 years.
But this year, shoppers in some stores around the country attacked the displays and threatened store employees with physical violence. On social media, some called for a boycott of the Minneapolis-based retailer.
In an effort to protect its workers and prevent more mayhem, Target moved its pride items and displays to the back of stores -- mainly in Southern states.
Those actions then angered other shoppers who support LGBTQ rights and Pride Month, and felt that Target had "sold out" to conservatives. Some are also promoting a boycott of the retailer.
So far, Walmart is staying mum on the issue and what it might do to avoid a similar response to the pride merchandise it sells in stores and online. A Walmart spokesperson said the company has no comment on the matter at this time.
Walmart carries some pride merchandise throughout its stores. And its e-commerce site, Walmart.com, has a "Pride and Joy" page highlighting creators of LGBTQ-themed items such as apparel, books and cards that Walmart sells online. The page features introductions with photos of some of the artists and company founders.
But the time is past when retailers can stick their heads in the sand and ignore an increasingly polarized and angry society, experts say.
Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant and president of Spieckerman Retail, said it's unfortunate that store employees bear the brunt of the abuse. "No doubt that is a retailer's primary concern," she said.
However, retailers carry pride merchandise because customers want to buy it, Spieckerman said.
"Even so, any retailer carrying pride merchandise has already taken a stand," she said. "Therefore, backing down in reaction to backlash demonstrates a lack of conviction and courage to customers."
"It also sets an unfortunate precedent that encourages harassment in the future," Spieckerman said.
Martin Thoma, of the Little Rock marketing and brand communications firm Thoma Thoma, said Target is just the latest of many companies that are becoming embroiled in spats between two sides of a divisive issue.
Companies are now "confronted with situations where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," Thoma said. "There is no way for any entity to be all things to all people."
Thoma said there will probably be more situations like the one at Target and others such as Disney in Florida and Bud Light. He points the finger at social media, much of which is encouraging people to become more activist and feel empowered to act out.
Since this problem is not going away, hiding out has become a losing strategy, Thoma said.
"Maybe companies should treat this as a crisis communication that might be required," he said. "Plan for the worst and hope for the best is a good mantra here."