Many of the nation’s largest retailers abruptly decided this week to stop selling merchandise tied to the Confederate battle flag.

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Even as national retailers pull Confederate flags from shelves and websites after the shooting deaths of nine black church members in South Carolina, manufacturers that produce the divisive symbol say that sales are now surging.

“I don’t sell the Confederate flag for any specific group, I just sell the flag,” said Kerry McCoy, owner and president of Arkansas’ Flag­andBanner.com. “This is America. Everybody has a right to be represented whether you are a history buff or a nut.”

McCoy said her company expects to sell about 50 of the flags over the next week. That’s about half of what they typically sell in a year.

However, many of the nation’s largest retailers abruptly decided this week to stop selling merchandise tied to the Confederate battle flag.

 

Confederate flag debate

One by one, beginning with Wal-Mart on Monday evening, companies including Sears/Kmart, eBay, Amazon, Etsy and Google Shopping disavowed, sometimes in strong moral terms, merchandise that has been sold quietly for decades.

“We have decided to prohibit Confederate flags, and many items containing this image, because we believe it has become a contemporary symbol of divisiveness and racism,” eBay said in a statement, echoing the sentiments of others in the aftermath of last week’s slayings and the arrest of a white suspect.

Target said it pulled its historic Confederate costume from its website, but said it did not carry Confederate flags or décor that bore that image.

The killings have renewed a focus on the Confederate flag, after the South Carolina shooting suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, appeared in photos holding the flag. And large segments of the public have demanded that it be removed from its perch at the State House in Charleston, S.C. On Tuesday, as the flag continued to be held up as a symbol of hatred and slavery, South Carolina lawmakers were considering whether to have it taken down.

The retailers’ actions have illuminated a patchwork industry of T-shirts, mugs, beach towels and hundreds of other items bearing the Confederate symbol that are made everywhere from factories in China to tiny craft shops.

More than 29,000 such offerings could be found on the Amazon website Tuesday morning, including bikinis, shower curtains, ceramic coasters, cupcake toppers and even a tongue ring.

The company had remained silent as other retailers made their announcements. But by midafternoon, after emotional posts poured onto the company’s Facebook page, a company official confirmed it would take down all Confederate merchandise.

Some consumers used the hashtag #takeitdown. “I am a Prime subscriber, but I sadly will not be buying anything from Amazon if your confederate flag merchandise is not removed from the site,” wrote Meredith Mac.

“I am APPALLED that you are continuing to sell (and honestly, that you EVER sold) Confederate flag merchandise,” wrote Diane Scholten.

She added: “Odd to think that in this instance Wal-Mart is doing a better job than you are.”

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Yet even as companies were vowing to discontinue the items, sales of them were soaring. Confederate flags had jumped to the top of Amazon’s Patio, Lawn & Garden category, with purchases of some items spiking by more than 5,000 percent.

By midafternoon Tuesday, the Dixie Flag Co. in San Antonio, Texas, had sold 25 Confederate flags in 24 hours, according to the company’s president, Pete Van de Putte. Usually, the company has no more than three orders a week for the flags and sometimes only three in a month, he said.

The reasons for the purchases varied. One customer at a small Georgia shop told the owner she wanted to line her front yard with Confederate flags. Van de Putte said a black man had come into Dixie Flags on Monday with his young daughter seeking to buy the biggest Confederate flag in the store. He said he was buying it to burn it.

While large retailers were feeling public pressure to pull the items from their shelves and websites, a number of smaller companies refused.

At Wildman’s, a jumble of a shop in Kennesaw, Ga., about 40 miles from Atlanta, that sells numerous sizes of Confederate flags, along with magnets, license plates and barbecue aprons, the 84-year-old owner, Dent Myers, said of Wal-Mart and others: “They are chicken. Kowtowing to the herds.”

Wal-Mart’s action had even brought him some new business. Jack Hicklin, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who had a knife holster and a handgun in his pocket, came in looking for Confederate flag tank tops after learning that Wal-Mart would no longer carry them.

“We got all these killings and people are worried about the damn flag?” he said.

In a midafternoon interview, Van de Putte of the Dixie Flag Co. said his company was committed to continuing to sell the flag.

“There are many flags that we sell that somebody could find offensive,” he said. “We sell gay-pride flags. We sell Jewish flags. We sell Arab-country flags. When you’re in the business of selling flags and symbols, I think you have a responsibility to offer everything and not make those value judgments because someone might find something objectionable politically.”

But a few hours later, Vanessa Van de Putte, his daughter and the vice president of the company, called to say that the business had changed its mind after some major suppliers, including a venerable manufacturer, Annin Flagmakers, had said they would no longer make Confederate flags. “Based on the consensus in the industry and the current situation, as of this time we are not going to sell the Confederate battle flag,” she said.