Stores are more subdued in observing Pride Month. Some LGBTQ+ people see a silver lining in that

With Pride Month in full gear, U.S. shoppers can find the usual merchandise many stores stock for the June celebration of LGBTQ+ culture and rights

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NEW YORK (AP) — With Pride Month in full gear, U.S. shoppers can find the usual merchandise many stores stock for the June celebration of LGBTQ+ culture and rights. But analysts and advocates say the marketing is toned down compared to previous years, and at some chains, there's no trace of Pride at all.

The more subdued atmosphere underscores the struggle of many retailers to cater to different groups of customers at a time of extreme cultural divisions. This year's Pride Month is unfolding amid a sea of legislation and litigation over LGBTQ+ rights, especially the ability of transgender young people to participate in sports or receive gender-affirming care.

Against this backdrop, Target reduced the number of its stores carrying Pride-themed products this year after getting backlash in 2023. Nike, which like Bud Light became the subject of boycott calls last year over its marketing partnership with a transgender influencer, also has pulled back after offering Pride collections since 1999. The athletic brand said it won't have one this year; rather, it said it's focusing on programming and ongoing support for the LGBTQ+community.

Some brands and influencers who work with the community report a noticeable decline in corporate partnerships. Rob Smith, founder and chief executive of The Phluid Project, a brand of gender-neutral clothing, cited a 25% drop compared with last June in the number of stores carrying his collection.

“I guess they just decided this year, especially in an election year, with what’s going on, just to play it safe,” Smith said. He declined to reveal the names of his former retail clients.

But he and other advocates see a silver lining. They think the low-key landscape partially reflects a desire by some companies to move beyond one-month expressions of support toward more enduring acts of allyship, such as regularly featuring LGBTQ+-owned brands and models.

Here's what to know about the retail world and Pride Month:

What's the history of Pride merchandising?

Many big retailers, including Levi's, Old Navy and Urban Outfitters, have put out Pride collections for years. Some brands limited their store displays to areas with large numbers of LGBTQ+ residents or visitors and expanded them to more places as LGBTQ+ rights progressed.

Many more brands eventually got in on the action, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriages in 2015. But as Pride became more commercialized, some advocates questioned the hoopla, saying support of the LGBTQ+ community shouldn't be a seasonal marketing opportunity.

What happened with Target?

Target introduced an annual collection of rainbow-branded fashion and accessories starting in 2015. It generated occasional opposition, but the reaction turned "volatile" ahead of last year's Pride Month, the company said.

Customers at a handful of stores confronted employees and tipped over Pride displays, threatening workers' sense of safety, Target said. The discounter responded last year by removing some items and relocating some displays.

Target declined to disclose how many of its stores don't have Pride merchandise this year; the locations that were stocked accounted for 90% of Pride sales from 2022 and 2023, it said. Pride items also are available on Target’s website.

Meredith Browand, 47, who lives outside Seattle, was let down when she didn't see any Pride displays at her local Target. Browand, who considers herself an LGBTQ+ ally, said Target was where she always bought matching outfits for herself and her 5-year old daughter.

“I'm disappointed in that there isn’t anything for us,” she said. “But a bigger disappointment is that it’s not visible for the greater community.”

Where is Pride merchandise available this year?

Many retailers contacted by The Associated Press said they haven't changed their approaches to commemorating Pride Month.

Macy’s said its namesake department stores, its upscale Bloomingdale’s and its Bluemercury beauty stores each spotlight products from LGTBQ+-owned, founded and designed brands at select stores and online.

Walmart offers an assortment from LGBTQ+ owned brands and creators available online and in some stores nationwide. Adidas, Converse and Levi Strauss & Co., which have brought out Pride Month collections for many years, did so again.

Teen retailer American Eagle Outfitters plans to offer a year-round Pride collection to “promote acceptance and equality,” said Jennifer Foyle, president and executive creative director of American Eagle and Aerie, which sells women’s clothing.

What are the signs of a Pride pullback?

Marketing experts and LGBTQ+ rights advocates perceive that overall, brands aren't promoting their Pride Month products on social media as heavily as in past years.

“It’s not dropping the support." said Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. “But they’re dropping the spotlight."

It's possible the shift reflects a natural progression, Kahn said. If lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are regarded as part of the norm, there’s no point in making a big statement, she said.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community who previously got work tied to Pride Month cite a marked change in the demand for their services. Not all of them interpret the pullback as positive.

Alysse Dalessandro, a plus-size fashion and travel blogger and LGBTQ+ content creator who posts under the handle @readytostare, said 35 clients hired her as a model for their Pride Month social media campaigns in 2022. The number dropped to nine last year and to five so far this year, the Cleveland, Ohio, resident said.

“The hard part for me as a creator is that I can't change my identity. This is who I am," Dalessandro said. “How I make money is also who I am and who I love.”

GLSEN, a nonprofit advocacy and education group that works to improve the school lives of LGBTQ+ students, also helps corporations craft Pride Month campaigns. The group started seeing a drop in revenue from such activities last year and experienced a bigger drop this year, according to Paul Irwin-Dudek, GLSEN's deputy executive director for development.

He declined to elaborate. Irwin-Dudek said some companies have retreated, but plenty of others have doubled down in their commitment to promoting LGBTQ+ rights.

At the same time, members of GLSEN's National Student Council who provided feedback to the Hollister fashion brand asked for fewer prominent rainbows and more messages of love, acceptance and individuality. The result: “Unapologetically You,” a summer campaign launched this month.

How are retailers recognizing other heritage months?

Experts say special merchandising and marketing campaigns around other months designated to honor specific groups, including racial minorities and women, also are fading.

Target CEO Brian Cornell told reporters last year the company had learned from the Pride backlash and planned to be more thoughtful in how it approached all heritage months.

Smith, of The Phluid Project, said his own brand is getting away from rainbows and evolving into a year-round fashion collection.

Low-cost Swedish retailer H&M sold a Pride collection in 2018 and 2019 but stopped doing so because it “chose not to commercialize Pride or other cultural months,” Donna Dozier Gordan, head of inclusion and diversity at H&M Americas, said.

The company now focuses on reaffirming its dedication to the LGBTQ+ community in other ways, including by taking a prominent part in Pride marches globally. It said it would continue to donate as well as promote partnerships with groups like The Trevor Project, an American nonprofit that focuses on preventing suicides among LGBTQ+ youth.

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