Loblaws boycott: What consumer psychology can tell us about the success of consumer activism

Written by Eugene Y. Chan, Toronto Metropolitan University. Originally published in The Conversation.
A planned boycott, organized by a Reddit group called ‘Loblaws is out of control,’ aims to reduce grocery prices and increase food security for Canadians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

Loblaws has found itself at the centre of public frustration due to soaring food prices. Canadians have expressed their discontent on social media, venting about the high cost of groceries at grocery stores like Loblaws.

Loblaws has reported rising profits and seen its stock value climb over the past year. The planned boycott, organized by a Reddit group with 75,000 members called “Loblaws is out of control,” aims to reduce grocery prices and increase food security for Canadians.

Their list of demands includes having the company sign a grocers’ code of conduct and reduce food prices by 15 per cent. The founder of the Reddit page met with Loblaws CEO Per Bank on May 2 to discuss grocery prices.

History suggests the success of such movements often hinges on widespread public support and sustained momentum. However, whether out of convenience or habit, the nature of consumer behaviour may pose challenges to the effectiveness of this particular boycott. Consumer psychology can help explain why boycotts sometimes fail, and predict when they will be successful.

In-group bias

Psychologically, in-group bias is one reason why consumer boycotts are not always successful. Loyal customers tend to perceive themselves as part of a brand’s community — in this case, loyal Loblaws customers may feel themselves a part of the “Loblaws community.”

This sense of belonging creates emotional attachment and loyalty toward the brand. Loyal consumers identify with the brand and prioritize their in-group affiliation. In-group bias fosters a strong desire to support the brand, especially when the brand is faced with criticism.

The produce section of a grocery store seen from above.
May marks a month-long boycott of the grocery retailer and its offshoot brands, as a group of shoppers, called ‘Loblaws is out of control,’ says its 75,000 members are fed up with the company’s grocery prices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

The phenomenon of in-group bias can shed light on why public boycotts and venting about Loblaws may paradoxically strengthen the company’s core customer base.

As the boycotts unfold and criticism mounts, Loblaws’ core customers may feel a heightened sense of loyalty and solidarity with Loblaws. This is just like how a close group of friends may even draw closer to each other when facing external pressures and criticism by outside parties.

In Loblaws’ case, loyal customers’ in-group affiliation leads them to resist external pressure and maintain their autonomy in choosing where to shop. In essence, the very act of boycotting by others may reinforce the bond between Loblaws and its core customers, making them more likely to continue supporting the brand especially in face of the public outcry.

The bystander effect

Another possible psychological explanation for consumer boycotts failing comes from the bystander effect. With the public venting and highly-publicized planned boycotts, paradoxically, consumers assume that others will take action, leading to diffusion of responsibility and reduced individual motivation to participate.

In this scenario, consumers may privately agree with the reasons for boycotting Loblaws, such as dissatisfaction with rising food prices, but hesitate to join the boycott due to the perception that others will address the issue. This diffusion of responsibility can result in a collective inertia, wherein individuals refrain from taking action, ultimately hindering the effectiveness of the boycott efforts as each consumer relies on others to initiate change.

A close-up of the front of a No Frills store.
The month-long Loblaws boycott also includes its offshoot brands like No Frills, Provigo and City Market. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joe O’Connal

One final possibility comes from how participating in boycotts is often interpreted as a political act, as it involves taking a stance on a social or ethical issue and aligning oneself with a particular ideology.

Yet, to engage in political activism means one is not simply standing up to what’s right but to deviate from normative standards and mainstream opinions — and people generally don’t like to be seen as part of the out-group.

Moreover, political activism changes how people define their own self-concept, yet self-concept changes are uncomfortable and tend to be avoided. Thus, consumers may avoid the political activist nature of boycotts even if they might otherwise agree with the boycott’s goals.

The Loblaws case underscores the fact that boycotts may not always work. Examining the psychology behind consumer choices — whether to boycott or not — provides valuable insights. Understanding these motivations is key to understanding the drivers behind calls for social change.

When do boycotts work?

Psychology can also provide insights into factors predicting boycotts’ success, with the perception of injustice being central. When individuals perceive wrongdoing by a company, they feel morally compelled to act, forming a strong emotional connection to the cause.

This moral outrage motivates participation in collective action and sacrifices to support the boycott. By emphasizing how Loblaws’ high prices affect consumers’ finances, boycott organizers can further motivate the public to join their cause.

Furthermore, the visibility and public awareness surrounding Loblaws appear to be having an impact. Indeed, even CEO Per Bank had to push back and say that criticisms of the company are “misguided.”

Loblaws has claimed that its high food prices are due to supplier issues, but this has done little to assuage the frustrations of Canadians who see the chain as maximizing profit at the expense of Canadians’ financial well-being.

It is clear that it is getting more difficult for the company to ignore the boycotts given their media attention, prompting at least some consumers to reconsider where they do their weekly grocery shop.