Gap, Wal-Mart hope election season can jolt consumer spending

With the start of the Democratic National Convention in Denver on Monday, retailers, faced with the toughest economic environment in years, have latched onto the presidential election as a vehicle for jump-starting sales.

Among the first to step into the fray: Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Gap Inc.

Gap, the San Francisco-based apparel chain, is resurrecting its legacy white T-shirt with a nationwide “Vote” campaign. The rollout began Friday in Chicago at the Gap’s Midwest flagship on North Michigan Avenue, where makeshift voting booths lined the storefront.

Inside, shoppers lined up for free white T-shirts with the words “Vote for _____.” A clerk filled in the blank according to customers’ wishes using a T-shirt press. Shoppers have their pick of an array of press-on letters, markers, buttons and patches.

What are shoppers voting for? It’s not all Obama and McCain. Some are voting ice cream or lower gas prices or, simply, change.

The store had 300 T-shirts at 9 a.m. They were gone by 1:30 p.m. Gap’s seven-city tour moves to Philadelphia on Tuesday and runs through Sept. 11.

At the same time, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, is launching a series of television ads during the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

The 15-second ads focus on the economy, gas prices and health-care costs, and they pitch Wal-Mart as a place to save money. The first ad airs Monday and is slated to run through Sept. 7 on cable network news and talk shows focused on election coverage.

Meanwhile, a new survey found that when asked to vote as if the election were today, shoppers that favored Wal-Mart, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney are more likely to vote for Sen. John McCain, while Macy’s and Target shoppers say they would cast their ballot for Sen. Barack Obama.

The survey, released Monday from Worthington, Ohio-based BIGresearch, also found that while Wal-Mart and Penneys shoppers favored McCain, the group was fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Kohl’s shoppers, on the other hand, tended to fall more squarely in the Republican camp. Macy’s and Target shoppers were more likely to call themselves Democrats.

“Perhaps McCain should consider a bus tour through Wal-Mart parking lots, and Obama could use Target,” said Gary Drenik, president of BIGresearch.

How bad is it? Retail guru Mickey Drexler, dubbed the “King of Cool” on the cover of Fortune magazine’s Sept. 1 luxury issue, tells the business publication that the current retail environment is the worst he’s seen during his 40 years in the business. The CEO of J. Crew and master merchant also says the days of big-name designers are over.

“Designer goods have become much too available, either through their own distribution or through logo counterfeiting,” he told the magazine. “I see the world moving away from carrying a bag around with the designer’s initials or designer’s logo. The more you see of anything, the less special it becomes.”