FREE FOR ALL

The #BoycottWalmart movement misses a crucial fact about Walmart

Under fire.
Under fire.
Image: Reuters/Daniel Becerril
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Supporters of Donald Trump are seething after discovering baby clothes with “Impeach 45″—Trump is the 45th US president—up for sale on Walmart’s site. (They’ve since been taken down.)

Many are calling for a boycott of the giant retailer on Twitter with the hashtag #BoycottWalmart, reports Fox News. Furious Trump supporters see the clothes as evidence that Walmart has aligned itself with America’s political left, or that it is trying to send a partisan message.

But the accusations miss a crucial fact about how Walmart runs its website, or more specifically, its third-party marketplace, where the items appeared. The reality is that Walmart, like many other companies, doesn’t keep track of everything sold through its online marketplace. While it can’t entirely deny responsibility, its failing here has nothing to do with partisan politics.

In a statement to Fox News, Walmart pointed out that the “Impeach 45” items were being sold “by third party sellers on our open marketplace, and were not offered directly by Walmart.” That marketplace is a sprawling e-commerce free-for-all where you can buy Nike sneakersLouis Vuitton handbags, Urban Decay eyeshadow, or refurbished Apple computers from countless individual sellers who have no connection to Walmart, other than using its site to peddle their wares.

Sellers do need to apply to be able to list their items. But once they’re approved—a process that takes a few weeks—Walmart doesn’t watch every item put up for sale. Instead, it collects its referral fee on each sale and hopes everyone abides by the rules (pdf) they’ve agreed to.

Of course, not everyone does. Many individuals are not authorized by brands to sell their products, while some sell counterfeits, as the US Government Accountability Office reported earlier this year. They do so in violation of their agreement, but quite often they escape unnoticed. We have reached out to Walmart for comment, and will update this story with any reply.

The problem isn’t Walmart’s alone. Birkenstock accused Amazon of being lax at monitoring fakes on its third-party marketplace in 2016, and retaliated by pulling its shoes from Amazon itself—though there are still tons of unauthorized Birkenstocks on the site. Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao is so plagued by fakes that the US has labeled it a “notorious market” for counterfeits.

These marketplaces are a vital source of revenue for retailers. More than half of the stuff Amazon sold in 2017 came from third-party sellers, rather than Amazon itself, and Walmart saw its sales jump after it overhauled its marketplace. Companies may try to clean their marketplaces up as much as possible, but they still want lots of people listing and selling items, so they’re not keen to put up barriers.

The result is an environment where a seller can successfully list baby clothes emblazoned with the bizarre slogan “Slavery gets shit done”—which happened on Amazon’s marketplace earlier this year. Compared with that, the “Impeach 45” baby clothes on Walmart.com seem pretty harmless.

Trump supporters are free to boycott, of course, but as Fox News noted, there are also plenty of items on Walmart’s marketplace with Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again.” Walmart may not know about them, either.