Indies Unite in Gateway City

SLAPRA gives voice to St. Louis-area independent retailers

ST. LOUIS-- It wasn't as if Harinder Singh didn't have enough to do. He was already running a chain of six gas stations as president of St. Louis-based Gateway Petrol Inc. and operating an upscale Indian restaurant in the city's Central West End when he added yet another title to his resume: founder and president of the St. Louis Area Petroleum Retailers Association (SLAPRA).

"It's my third full-time job," Singh told CSP Daily News. "Independent gas station owners in Missouri don't have much of a voice, and it's difficult to deal with these issues single-handedly. [image-nocss] We're not set up to pick fights with people; it's about making businesses profitable and giving us a chance to make a return on our investment."

Singh officially founded Clayton, Mo.-based SLAPRA in March, five months after helping overturn a city ordinance in place since 1992 that had barred gas station owners from selling any alcohol-based beverages with more than 5% alcohol by weight. In December 2009, after nearly two years of Singh's efforts to remedy the situation's unfairness, the mayor of St. Louis turned the ordinance on its ear, effectively giving gas station owners the right to sell hard liquor.

The "win" didn't last long, according to Singh, because a group of liquor-store owners almost immediately filed a restraining order.

"On behalf of SLAPRA members, we intervened in the case and cross-complained that we want a judicial determination and have the restraining order resolved," said J. Rahm Narayan, an attorney specializing in small-business issues who assists SLAPRA in an advisory role. "The ordinance as it stands does, in fact, allow for the sale of liquor by gas stations in the city of St. Louis. It went before a judge in the middle of May, and now we're just waiting for a ruling."

Beyond the liquor ordinance, SLAPRA has also focused on other issues affecting small-business owners, such as PCI (payment card industry) compliance mandates, which require marketers to spend copious amounts of time and money on new technology designed to make credit- and debit-card transactions more secure. Singh has pushed back on his jobber and the credit-card companies, seeking clarification as to exactly who is responsible for shouldering the burden of the hardware and software upgrades, because he does not agree that he or any other independent business owner should bear the cost.

As of late June, SLAPRA had approximately 80 retail members as well as a growing number of vendor members, such as fuel distributors and service providers. To join the organization a single-store operator must pay $500 in annual fees, with an additional $200 for every store thereafter. Besides acting as an advocate on the behalf of small-business owners, SLAPRA has fortified its list of tangible member benefits, namely discounts on in-store products and services negotiated by Singh. He is also developing a human-resources portal designed to streamline the hiring process and "ensure the visibility of the most-qualified, well-vetted candidates available for a given job opening." The portal should be ready for release by summer's end.

"The dealer or independent business owner has so many issues to deal with, and nobody has been doing anything specifically about their rights or interests," said Singh. "The idea [behind SLAPRA] is to pool our resources, because the small independent stores that are flying a flag and don't have a concept can't qualify for chain price breaks"

He added, "The priority of SLAPRA is the priority of its members. The only way to become competitive is for the independents to become one. Otherwise, the small guys like me could get squeezed out."