The positive side of ‘Zwarte Piet’

In the last year there has been a worldwide discussion about our Dutch celebration called ‘Sinterklaas’. The racist background of this celebration and especially of the sidekick of Sinterklaas named ‘Zwarte Piet’ (Black Pete) was discussed inside the Netherlands and even the UN. After months of discussing Zwarte Piet, the Sinterklaas celebration finally arrived. But it did not stop there. Even at the national entry of Sinterklaas, people were demonstrating against Zwarte Piet. This caused that Sinterklaas is now no longer seen as an innocent children festivity, but as a cruel racist celebration. The discussion about Zwarte Piet was mainly cultural oriented and from a very negative perspective. But can’t we see it from another point of view? Maybe there is a positive side to this discussion, for example when we look at it from an economic perspective. The question that can be asked is if this discussion maybe benefited the Dutch economy and increased the sales in many stores?

Retailnews states that all the retailers in the Netherlands together expected an extra sales of 493 million euros. It looks like the discussion evoked an increased interest in this traditional Dutch celebration. But now the Sinterklaas celebration is over we can see if this increased sales really came true.

To see if it did I spoke to two retailers. The first one is Mieke van Veen who owns a clothing store. Last year her sales increased around Sinterklaas time. She states that a lot of people see Sinterklaas as an opportunity to spoil their children with some extra clothes for the cold winter days coming up. This year her sales did not increase significantly compared to last year. She sold around the same amount of clothes intended as Sinterklaas gifts. But as she says herself: ‘’Maybe the clothing branche is not the right one to look at for this theme. People buy more toys, candy etc for their children around Sinterklaas than clothes.’’

I also spoke with Jonathan Geurts, manager of a children’s toys store in Breda, to really see if the discussion influenced the sales of Sinterklaas presents. He definitely saw an increase in the sale of children’s toys around the Sinterklaas celebration. But he states that he does not know if it is because of the commotion around Zwarte Piet, or the increasing trust in the economy of consumers. This whole last year was a better year for him than the previous year, because of the economic crisis that slowly comes to an end.

So how can we know if the increasing sales was due to the Zwarte Piet discussion? To answer this question I spoke to the organisation of all retailers in the Netherlands called Detailhandel Nederland. They saw a very early interest in Sinterklaas gifts and according to the organisation this was because of the discussion. The discussion started to peak already at the beginning of this year, so the interest of the people and awareness was also evoked around that time. According to Detailhandel Nederland this caused that people started to shop for Sinterklaas earlier than usual and also different stores prepared themselves for Sinterklaas earlier than previous years. Knowing this we can thus state that the attention around Sinterklaas did cause an earlier interest for shopping for Sinterklaas presents.

But there is one more bump in the road. The stores that were interviewed and looked at were all stores that did not take a stand in this discussion. They all kept promoting Zwarte Piet besides coloured Pieten. However there were some stores that decided to ban Zwarte Piet and not sell any products with Zwarte Piet on it. One example of such a store is the Hema, a big company in the Netherlands that sells all kinds of products, from food to clothing. Some people decided not to shop at Hema anymore because of this stand against Zwarte Piet, including Geert Wilders leader of the political party PVV. He posted a tweet saying: No more Hema for me!

geert wilders

A spokesmen of the Hema said that banning Zwarte Piet did not affect the sales around Sinterklaas. But looking at the sales of the Hema, a small decrease was noticed. In total there was a decrease of 3.4 percent, but according to the spokesmen this was because of the remodelling of various stores.

Another company that banned Zwarte Piet was the Albert Heijn, a big supermarket chain in the Netherlands. Again this company received a lot of critique and several people decided to boycott the Albert Heijn. A spokesmen of the Albert Heijn stated that he does not think that the supermarket will suffer from this discussion, because people stick to their habits. In this case that is doing their groceries at Albert Heijn. Striking is that in the week after the Albert Heijn announced that Zwarte Piet would be banned out of the supermarkets, it was heavily discussed on social media. But already a few weeks later this discussion was toned down significantly. Maybe the spokesmen is right and only a small amount of people continued their boycott of Albert Heijn. But since there are no sales numbers published yet, the assumption of the spokesmen cannot be confirmd or rejected.

Derived from all these facts we can state that the Zwarte Piet discussion did not affect the economy and consumption inside the Netherlands in a significant way. Increased sales in some stores could also be attributed to a higher consumer trust in the economy. What we can state is that people started shopping earlier this year for Sinterklaas. Overall this caused a higher amount of sales of Sinterklaas products in the overall year. There was almost no difference between stores that were involved in the discussion and stores that did not. So even though the discussion had a negative effect on the cultural side of the celebration, it did not have a negative effect on the economic side.

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