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Where does the Ivanka Trump brand go from here?

Shoes from the Ivanka Trump collection are displayed at a Lord & Taylor department store in New York. (Mark Lennihan/Associated Press)
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Even if you’re not much of a fashionista, it’s been hard to miss the firestorm that has recently engulfed the Ivanka Trump brand. And foreboding signs are continuing to pile up: Panjiva, a global trade data company, says that imports of products that bear the Ivanka Trump name were 54.4 percent lower in the three months ended Jan. 31 compared with the three months that ended Sept. 30, the period that represents the peak of imports of that brand in Panjiva’s records.

And on social media, the boycott campaign called Grab Your Wallet is gaining momentum. According to data from Captiv8, a social media analytics firm, there have been more than 496,000 “engagements” — likes, retweets, and so on — since October on Twitter and Instagram posts that use the #grabyourwallet hashtag. After a burst of activity in November and a cool-down in December and January, engagement on the hashtag soared to its highest level in early February.

In the retail world, big questions are swirling: How exactly did the Ivanka Trump brand fall so hard, so fast – particularly in the Nordstrom ecosystem? And where does the brand go from here?

Nordstrom announced it was dropping first daughter Ivanka Trump's clothing line, following calls for boycott. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Nordstrom says the plunge in sales of Ivanka Trump products became particularly pronounced in the back half of the year. This partly overlaps with the rise of Grab Your Wallet, which this autumn began urging shoppers to boycott retailers that carry goods affiliated with Trump family businesses.

But to suggest that the boycott alone is the culprit is to paint an incomplete picture.

The boycott is meant to send a message to retailers who do business with the Trumps, and to hit the Trumps where it hurts most: in their paychecks. The campaign also seeks to puncture President Trump’s image of his family as winners.

But legions of shoppers probably have been doing something much less tactical and premeditated. Imagine this scenario: A woman browses the dress department at Nordstrom, looking for something to wear to a job interview. She grabs an armful of frocks to take to the fitting room. She gives an Ivanka Trump fit-and-flare dress a glance, but ultimately leaves it on the rack.

The thought process there is less “stick it to the first family” and more “I don’t know if I feel comfortable having that in my closet.”

Unlike the boycotters, who want the brand banished from shelves, this shopper may not even care that Nordstrom carries it. She just doesn’t want to buy it.

And that quieter, less calculated avoidance can perhaps be just as harmful as a boycott. Consider, for a moment, the people who haven’t gone back to Chipotle much since the restaurant’s food contamination scares. They aren’t boycotting the burrito chain, they just found other options. And the blow to the company’s sales and stock prices has been devastating.

This is not to write off the boycotters of Trump merchandise. Brayden King, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University who has studied the attributes of successful boycotts, says it often comes to down to how much media attention they generate – and Grab Your Wallet has certainly drummed up plenty of that, including from The Washington Post. That campaign also has driven potentially influential conversation around the topic on social media.

As the Ivanka Trump brand tries to craft a path forward, much of the work of wooing customers could, in theory, be accomplished by creating a highly covetable product.

But that gets to one of the brand’s chief problems as it tries to recuperate from this setback: The Ivanka Trump line largely consists of reasonably attractive but entirely unremarkable clothing for the 9-to-5 crowd. These are safe garments that you buy because they slot in like Tetris pieces to your wardrobe. The pencil skirt pairs with several blouses in your closet; the closed-toe pumps are reasonably comfy and adhere to your office’s buttoned-up dress code.

Department stores carry plenty of other lines with similar aesthetics and prices – and far less baggage. For merchants and shoppers alike, convenient alternatives abound. The Ivanka Trump line doesn’t give them anything they can’t get elsewhere.

And then there’s this: A department store such as Nordstrom relies on certain beloved, aspirational brands to make itself a draw for shoppers, such as Coach and Burberry. But much of the time, the dynamic works in the opposite direction, with small brands relying on the cachet and gravitational pull of the department store to get people to give them a try.

The Ivanka Trump brand is almost surely in that latter category. The line reportedly brought in $14.3 million in sales at Nordstrom in the most recent full fiscal year. Based on Nordstrom’s earnings forecasts, that probably will amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the company’s total sales haul for the year. 

Nordstrom shoppers probably bought Ivanka Trump merchandise precisely because it had been given the Nordstrom imprimatur. They turn to Nordstrom as a tastemaker, and when they found Ivanka Trump clothes there, they bought them. But they won’t necessarily miss them when they’re gone.

With smaller brands, “the balance of power is quite a bit different. Those brands are fighting for floor space,” said Hunter Harris, a vice president at consultancy Boston Retail Partners.

So if certain department stores don’t need Ivanka Trump, the brand has to figure out a way to change that – or it has to find another path to wide distribution.

Given all these challenges, is the Ivanka Trump brand teetering on the edge of extinction? Not necessarily. The company says that revenue was up 21 percent in 2016 over the previous year. It also says its products will be sold in 1,000 retail stores by the end of the year, an increase from the 800 locations where it is currently sold. That suggests that some retailers still see opportunity there.

And that makes plenty of sense, because the Nordstrom customer is not representative of all shoppers. After all, there is now talk on social media of boycotting Nordstrom for dropping the line – suggesting some women are happy to buy the clothes.

One thing is for sure, though: The defection by Nordstrom and other big-name stores gives cover to retailers that now might want to drop this and other Trump family brands. The question is whether they think they need it.

Retailers Sears and Kmart removed 31 Trump Home items from their online product offerings, according to a spokesman, to focus on more "profitable items." (Video: Reuters)