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Published: Wednesday, 3/10/2010

Retailers caught in middle of debate on carrying guns


NEW YORK - Guns, religion, abortion: These are the no-win arguments that spoil family gatherings - and the stuff of retailers' nightmares.

Starbucks finds itself in the middle of such an argument as its stores became forums for demonstrations by both pro-gun and gun-control advocates. All for a firearm policy that hasn't changed and is the same as most retailers'. If it's legal to carry a firearm in town, it's allowed in the stores.

In recent months, the "open-carry" arm of the gun-rights movement, which advocates that gun owners carry visible weapons as they go about their daily business, have been exercising their rights. They've been displaying their sidearms in public places, sometimes meeting up in groups.

Starbucks' association with a politically liberal, "latte sipper" ethos made it a tempting target for gun-control advocates. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence attracted more than 26,000 signatures demanding that Starbucks "offer espresso shots, not gunshots."

Starbucks' response? It reiterated its policy of following state and local laws and asked everyone to leave it out of the debate.

Starbucks' situation is unusual in that it became a symbol of a debate not of its own making. But other companies have dealt with politically fraught situations where they risk alienating customers no matter what they do.

Marketing experts say standing firm was probably the best option Starbucks had.

Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova School of Business, said changing its position would diminish the company's reputation and alien-

ate people on the opposite side of the debate.

Some businesses are taking a stand, even if it costs them customers. Great American Restaurants, a chain of 10 restaurants and a bakery in northern Virginia, banned customers with guns after open-carry advocates showed up.

The company's chief executive officer, Randy Norton, said he decided to ban gun owners from carrying weapons when they planned large gatherings at his chain.

"I'm just not interested in having large groups of gun owners coming in and making a point," he said. "The gun people got enraged and they have made a point of boycotting us, but we haven't felt any economic effect from this."

Fred Taub, an Ohio consumer advocate who is a consultant to companies on boycotts, said, "It's too early to see the real impact right now, but this will have an effect. The Hollywood view is any PR is good. But from a business standpoint, this is a no-win."

Most large retailers, among them Target Corp., Home Depot Inc., and Best Buy Inc., say they follow state and local laws. The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., didn't respond to queries, but open-carry advocates count it among those that don't restrict customers from openly carrying weapons.

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