Walmart took the bold step of stopping selling ammunition for handguns and short barrel rifle ammunition and asking customers not to openly carry guns in its stores. Further, it called for gun control legislation. Other retailers, such as CVS, Kroger and Walgreens have followed Walmart’s lead.
Walmart’s action was particularly bold for two reasons; it has a dominant share of sales in rural areas where guns are commonplace, and a similar action by DICK’S Sporting Goods a year earlier resulted in a sales hit for the chain. And, of course, the NRA quickly came out against Walmart (just like they came out against DICK’S), accusing Walmart of capitulating to gun prohibitionists.
Will this chain of events injure Walmart? When Walmart made its decision, its numbers crunchers must have calculated that they were willing to give up the actual gun sales. But to me, the big question is whether Walmart will lose its customers’ other purchases as well. That could really hurt, because rural customers are the heart of Walmart’s business.
A couple of things might protect Walmart. One, the NRA has been weakened by its financial scandals and resignations, so it has less power to fight than last year. Two, because Walmart decimated the retail landscape in rural America, there may not be a substitute for Walmart customers in rural communities without their driving for hours.
But Walmart could also do a better job of talking to its customers who care about guns. Guns represent an aspect of being an American to their advocates. Gun ownership is part of a tribal identity and needs to be approached with care. In my book, Marketing Landmines: The Next Generation of Emotional Branding, I outline some powerful Ethical ReFraming strategies that I would recommend testing in this case. For example, Walmart could use the technique of ethical reframing to call for responsible gun ownership, which could change the conversation. (See my book for more details.)
What I couldn’t include in the book was something that happened after it came out. After the Christ Church massacre in New Zealand in 2019, the country passed legislation on gun control quickly. How did this happen when nothing has happened in the US when shootings continue to occur?
I think the reason that the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was able to succeed in banning assault rifles is that she spoke to the entire nation in terms that they understood, whether they were conservative or liberal. She did this when she used the words “They are us” about the victims of the attack and that the perpetrator was not “us.” This is another example of the technique of Ethical ReFraming.
Here in the US, we need to learn to talk to each other in ways we can understand. Walmart is in a perfect position to start a conversation – it has the right customers, and it has the right issue.