Behind the Curtain: Retailer Offers Insight on Lawmakers, Opposition

As trade show, education opportunities near, executive shares ideas on battling new regulation

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As retailers watch new regulations change the competitive landscape of their markets, at least one operator said the industry—as well as local lawmakers and enforcement agencies—need to better understand the opposition and how looks can often be deceiving.

With the NACS Show in Las Vegas from Oct. 7-10 fast approaching, c-store operators have another chance through networking events and educational sessions to learn from experts and each other how to improve their businesses.

In that light, Tom Robinson, president of Robinson Oil, Santa Clara, Calif., offered some thoughts on the theme of local regulation. As a former NACS chairman, Robinson has been a panelist at numerous NACS Show educational sessions.

Here’s how that Q&A went …

Q: How would you describe the legislative landscape today?

A: It’s only becoming more difficult. In particular, the challenges coming are at the local level, with cities or counties. We are dealing with a patchwork of requirements, which only exacerbates the challenges of complying well. And that’s whether you’re talking about tobacco, labor issues, minimum wage, straws, plastic bags, soda or sugar. Every city has their own interesting niche that’s difficult to stay ahead of.

Q: Can you explain the challenge further?

A: If you are a single-store operator, you may be competing with someone close, but in the next city with less onerous requirements. If you are a multistore operator, you are dealing with different requirements across your chain. The challenge is significant for the state and national associations, which do a good job at the state or federal level, but have a much more difficult time serving retailers at the local level. The associations have staff to help, but when you get down to the city and local level, these national and state associations are much more constrained with their budget or manpower. In particular, there’s the issue of receiving notice of public meetings in a timely way. You find out about an issue on Tuesday, and the city council meeting is Wednesday night. In those cases, it’s hard to mobilize.

Q: Thoughts on how it affects product categories, such as tobacco?

A: Tobacco is specific. In my view, it goes back to the financial bailout of 2008, or TARP [Troubled Asset Relief Program]. Some of the money that was supposed to save the financial system, to fund “shovel ready” projects, went toward “smoking cessation” programs. That created a gigantic funding source for groups to make all sorts of mischief—everything from establishing tobacco licenses to keeping product 1,000 feet away from schools or saying licenses shouldn’t be transferrable. So groups with anti-tobacco agendas were funded by the government to be able to do these things. Money has continued to flow from taxes to continue to fund efforts to limit tobacco sales.

Q: So what does that mean when it comes to fighting back?

A: These opposition groups use concern for youth smoking in their arguments, but it really is just anti-tobacco for adults. Which to me, is a somewhat elitist attitude of “I know better for you, than you know for yourself.” I encourage retailers to be engaged, follow the money, see who is pushing the agenda, what’s the funding source and more to the point, what statistics they’re using. I have been appalled at how misleading the opposition’s information is.

Q: You’re saying that knowledge is the best defense?

A: On a number of issues, whether it’s tobacco, sugar or labor, I think it’s important that retailers who are attempting to deal with new proposals in their neighborhoods, at whatever level, are more knowledgeable. It helps if they understand who they’re up against and work together with other retailers, associations and manufacturers.

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