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Wayfair employees walk out, customers call for boycott in protest over bed sales to Texas border detention camp

Key Points
  • Wayfair is facing a criticism after employees protested the company's apparent sale of mattresses destined for a border detention camp for children.
  • Some customers and businesses are boycotting the online furniture retailer until the company apologizes.
  • Wayfair sold mattresses and bunk beds to a charity group that manages some of the camps along the southern border.
Niraj Shah, CEO, Wayfair
Ashlee Espinal | CNBC

Wayfair drew political criticism and calls from some customers for a boycott after employees protested the company's apparent sale of $200,000 of mattresses and bunk beds destined for a Texas detention camp for migrant children.

Under the hashtag #BoycottWayfair, customers and businesses took to Twitter to announce they were canceling orders from the online home goods retailer, returning purchases and boycotting the retailer until the company apologizes. One employee estimated that 500 workers walked out of the company's Boston headquarters in protest at 1:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, holding signs that read "solidarity with migrant families" and "people not prisons."

Wayfair sold roughly 1,600 mattresses and 100 bunk beds to Baptist Child and Family Services, a nonprofit that works as a federal contractor managing some of the camps along the southern border, according to a copy of the June 13 sales receipt obtained by CNBC and verified by an employee. The merchandise is destined for Carrizo Springs, Texas, where the group is running an emergency influx shelter to house up to 1,600 unaccompanied children who have migrated across the U.S. border. The compound, about two hours southwest of San Antonio, formerly housed oil-field workers.

Wayfair hasn't returned repeated requests for comment, but co-founders Steve Conine and Niraj Shah told employees in an email Wednesday that they would donate $100,000 to the American Red Cross to help with the border crisis, according to a copy of the message obtained by CNBC and verified by an employee who received it.

The gesture wasn't enough for some employees, who asked to withhold their names out of fear of retaliation. The Twitter account run by organizers of the walkout wrote, "This is great news! And proof that Wayfair can & does do good. However, the Red Cross has nothing to do with these ICE-operated facilities."

Jenny, a preschool teacher from Eugene, Oregon, who asked CNBC to withhold her last name, said she canceled a Wayfair order she had placed just half an hour earlier after seeing news of the protest on Twitter. She didn't want to be fully identified for fear of public backlash.

"It's a tiny little thing you can do to send a message to get something bigger like a corporation to listen to you," she said in an interview, adding that she's spent a few thousand dollars on Wayfair furniture in the past few years.

So that her message would be heard by even more people, she decided to post on Twitter. "[J]ust read this after making a purchase from Wayfair — for my 5 year old's room, no less," she wrote. "I'm cancelling the order and won't buy from you anymore unless this is addressed."

She said she was flooded with messages from people saying they would also cancel their orders or stop purchasing from Wayfair until it issues an apology.

But some users also responded by asking what the alternative was. "You rather they sleep on cardboard?" one user asked.

"You don't want refugees to have decent furniture?" another responded.

Celebrities and public figures have also taken to Twitter to express support for the employees and the boycott.

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote that she stands with the Wayfair employees who are staging the walkout at the company's headquarters Wednesday afternoon. "The safety and well-being of immigrant children is always worth fighting for," she tweeted.

Online merchandise company Stands said it would join in the boycott: "until you reevaluate your supply chain, we will no longer be purchasing from you," it tweeted.

Chris Allieri, a crisis management professional at public relations firm Mulberry & Astor, said he doesn't expect consumers to forget about Wayfair's sales practices anytime soon.

"This brand is in so many of our homes, and that alone is a very powerful symbol for a boycott or for a movement that is very angry," he said. "I think this will have a bigger impact long-term on what the company is known for."

Another company, Houston-based Core Office Interiors, previously named Contract Resource Group, confirmed it has also supplied mattresses to a detention camp facility run by Baptist Child and Family Services in Baytown, Texas.

Correction: The name of the nonprofit running the Carrizo Springs, Texas, detention camp for kids is Baptist Child and Family Services, not Baptist Children's Family Services.