Local Lawmaking Remains Battleground for Retailers

Meeting area legislators face to face is an important step

By 
Angel Abcede, Senior Editor/Tobacco, CSP

Ryan Hanretty (from left), Tom Robinson, Alex Baloga and Paige Anderson discussed how to build relationships with lawmakers.

Retailers are increasingly finding regulatory overreach in their own backyards. Take the recent vote by the St. Paul, Minn., City Council to restrict the sale of menthol, mint and wintergreen tobacco products to tobacco shops and liquor stores, mirroring a similar move in its sister city of Minneapolis. It will take menthol-flavored tobacco products off convenience- and corner-store shelves when the law goes into effect Nov. 1, 2018.

The growing importance of local lawmaking was not lost on education-session speakers at the 2017 NACS Show, many of whom believe smaller communities are now the front lines for more sweeping legislation.

Those advocating for new rules or outright bans often go to the place of least resistance, said Tom Robinson, president of Robinson Oil, Santa Clara, Calif., which has 34 Rotten Robbie sites. As a panelist at a session on local politics, Robinson said most interest groups want to establish new federal law. When they can’t do that, they turn to the states. If blocked there, they drop to local municipalities.

“It’s a great strategy for a lot of interest groups,” Robinson said, explaining that local lawmakers are easier to persuade than those at the state or federal level.

Where to Begin?

While trying to stop new regulation may sound daunting, meeting local lawmakers face to face is an important step, said Robinson’s fellow panelist, Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, Wormleysburg, Pa. “Ask for a meeting. [Legislators] want to hear from their constituents.”

“They place a huge priority on local employers,” said Paige Anderson, director of government relations for NACS, Alexandria, Va. “You help the economy by creating jobs. Your vote matters.”

Both legislators and their staff need to be educated about convenience retail, said Ryan Hanretty, executive director of the California Independent Oil Marketers Association, Sacramento, Calif. Many staffers are new to politics and have “no clue” about the economic implications of new legislation, he said. The same may hold true for lawmakers themselves.

Retailers need to be aware of ways they can engage local council members and elected officials. “You run into them at the diner, the PTA or soccer practice,” Hanretty said. “There’s enough opportunity to say, ‘Hi.’ ”

Many lawmakers hold small fundraisers, during which, for $50 or $100, a retailer can gain access and face time. “Even better, if they are a customer of yours, it’s a great opportunity to [talk],” Hanretty said.

Once in front of lawmakers, it’s important to be prepared, said Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, Washington, D.C. Often, retailers don’t know a lawmaker’s history, committee assignments or any specific acts they’ve sponsored, Fitch said at a session on advocating for your business. Retailers sometimes come in with too many talking points, no data or little understanding of a proposal’s mitigating circumstances.

One Retailer’s Awakening

For Fitch’s co-panelist Steve Loehr, political engagement didn’t start until about 10 years ago. Initially, the extent of his legislative involvement was with zoning activity, said Loehr, vice president of operations support for Kwik Trip, La Crosse, Wis., which has 560 stores.

The tipping point came after a Wisconsin lawmaker made a proposal that would have given supermarkets an advantage over c-stores. Kwik Trip mobilized employees to call the legislator. That lawmaker later said that one Kwik Trip employee’s story—a third-shift clerk who spoke of how much her job’s profit-sharing program meant to her family—stood out for the legislator. In the end, the outcome proved successful for Kwik Trip.

To become effective in these legislative battles, retailers have to be organized and have buy-in from ownership, Loehr said. In one instance, a proposal that ran counter to the chain’s business goals passed into law by just 56 votes.

“I wish we had gotten 57 more people to vote,” he said.

At Kwik Trip, employees can invest in the company’s advocacy activities, putting small amounts each payroll period into a funding pool. That, in addition to the company’s own contribution, becomes what Loehr calls their ROI, or “return on involvement.”

Such investments don’t always reap victory, Loehr said, “but if you’re not at the table, you could be on the menu.”