Telling the retail story at the state and local level

Retail Gets Real episode 317: Live from the Council of State Retail Associations meeting
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

Nobody knows Main Street America better than the state retail association representatives who listen, engage, educate and advocate on behalf of their members every day.

“It’s an honor to represent retailers both from the national level and at the local level on really telling the retail story about the impact that California retailers have on our economy, and the important role that we play in the workforce, and in providing opportunities for all sectors of the economy to participate,” Rachel Michelin, president and CEO for the California Retailers Association, says on this special episode of Retail Gets Real, recorded live at the recent Council of State Retail Associations meeting in San Diego.

A major thread woven throughout the meeting was “telling the retail story,” and the state retail association executives both on the stage and in the audience shared retail stories of innovation, perseverance and impact, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns.

“I almost feel like it was an accelerated unification of the retail industry in terms of the fact that one size doesn’t fit all, and there’s a place for everybody, and retail is sustainable,” says Scott Shalley, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation.

Gordon Gough, president and CEO of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, agreed. “I was on a call with some retail CEOs about six months into the pandemic and one of the comments was, ‘We had 10 years of innovation in six months.’”

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If the adage “All politics are local” is true, then state retail association executives really are the first line of defense for retail public policy and government relations activity in state capitols across the nation.

“In Ohio, we try to go to some of the bigger cities in the state that are passing what we would call anti-retail, anti-business ordinances. Maybe not to stop the tide of the ordinance to pass, but to help educate, because many, many times these council folks will then come to the state legislature and be House members or Senate members,” Gough says.

“We think it’s important to try to stop some of these issues if we can, or educate at the local level, because if not, it can become a bigger issue as time goes on.”

Listen to the episode to learn more about the important role state retail associations play in state legislatures and local government, what SRA executives are doing on the issues of organized retail crime and credit card swipe fees, and how they draw on their membership to build relationships with policymakers that create impact.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity.

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we get to bring you yet another conversation with the most fascinating people who impact the industry that touches everyone, everywhere, every day. I am Bill Thorne with the National Retail Federation, and today we’re bringing you a very special episode. I happen to be in San Diego attending a meeting of the Council of State Retail Associations, and for the second time only, we recorded Retail Gets Real with an audience. 

This meeting is a very important and highly anticipated yearly event that brings together retailers, industry stakeholders and our state associations in order to level set, share insights, strategies and best practices. This is done so that we can collectively and collaboratively chart a path forward for advocacy on behalf of retailers in communities across America. 

State retail association executives are passionate about their mission on behalf of their members. They interact daily with some of the most extraordinary entrepreneurs and innovators who are shaping retail's future. They play an important role for retailers, large and small, by listening, engaging, educating and advocating on their behalf. 

Nobody knows Main Street America better than state retail association executives that I was privileged to be with at the event. And today, I’m happy to bring you a conversation with just three of them. Take a listen. 

Rachel Michelin, Gordon Gough, Scott Shalley. Welcome to Retail Gets Real. 

So, let's start by having each of you introduce yourself. I have a timer and you have one minute. Let's go. 

Gordon Gough: Hi, my name is Gordon Gough. I'm president and CEO of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants. We just celebrated 100 years of existence last year. We represent about 7,800 companies in the state of Ohio, and we represent retailers large and small and among very many segments. 

Rachel Michelin: Good morning. My name is Rachel Michelin. I'm the president and CEO for the California Retailers Association. We are now, I think, the fourth largest economy in the world, and probably the most regulated state in the nation. It's an honor to represent retailers both from the national level and at the local level on really telling the retail story about the impact that California retailers have on our economy, and the important role that we play in the workforce, and in providing opportunities for all sectors of the economy to participate.

Scott Shalley: Scott Shalley of the Florida Retail Federation. We've been around about 90 years representing a vast array of retailers throughout the state. Currently, we represent about 3,000 entities, ranging from the biggest of the big boxes to the corner store and we're honored to do that.

Thorne: So, Gordon, what was your first job?

Gough: My first job I worked at Fish's Big Boy and was a short order cook and worked the drive thru. 

Michelin: I worked at Robin & Banks in a department store. 

Shalley: Robbie's Sporting Goods, and, ironically, I was just with the grandson of the founder. It was a chain in the southeast, and he's the legislator in the house right now, so I like to bring that up pretty regularly.

Thorne: Nice to have that in. So, you all had pretty much jobs in retail, to some degree, food retail, retail. What did that teach you very early on and how do you apply that today to kind of your perspective and how you advocate? I'm going to start with you, Scott.

Shalley: Well, I think it's the people, the interaction, the process of sales, the process of being out there in front of consumers. It's really been a great lesson for me in terms of helping tell the story in the capital. Because it's “retail” [and] “business,” right? We’re very, very fortunate. We get to work with some of the nicest people in the world, but that are in business. It's a balance in terms of how do you leverage that, and how do you present yourself in a way that is acceptable and welcoming to people but at the same time convey very, very important business messages.

Even at the age of 15 — I guess, when I was working, in there selling shoes — you learn to try to establish a rapport but at the same time close the deal. The fact that we talk to so many people that their first job is in retail is another thing that's a huge part of our messaging when it comes to minimum wage issues and all those sorts of things. So, it's been invaluable, for sure

Gough: I look at one word and I think it's accountability. Accountability to 
yourself and the business that you represent when you work for them, and I think what we do in our industry is we give young people accountability — show up on time, do the right work, customer service, facing conversations with the customer, the customer is always right — those type of bromides that then help us in the careers that we have today. 

Thorne: You know, my first job was at McDonald's, and one thing I remember from the training was a saying by the founder, and that was, “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” And this has stuck with me for all of those years. I do not know why, but it has. 

Michelin:  Way back when we were on commission — so, you got a lower hourly rate but then it was on commission — you really had to learn how to connect with someone. I worked in the men's department, so I was selling men's clothing and I had to figure out how to connect with someone and I think you have to do that today. You always have to figure out: How am I going to connect to that legislator or that regulator? What can I find that common ground? 

I also think you learn conflict management because you always have those customers that come in that are not necessarily nice. You have to figure out how to work that into being able to have them leave the store and still be happy, and I think those are skills that you use today. When you have to go in and talk to a legislator and you're telling them, “Well, we oppose your bill,” and they get really mad at you. “Why are you opposing our bill?” And you're trying to lay it out. You have to still figure out: How do you do that graciously because you never know, you might be going back into that same office, trying to get them to vote for something that you need passed in the legislature. A lot of those skills. 

I think really though being motivated by having to get a commission because then you always have to hustle. I think when you run a state association, you always have to hustle because you always have to figure out, “OK, how do I bring in the revenue to keep the association going? How do I think of new ways to bring in new streams of revenue?” I think working in retail, it's always reinventing yourself, and I think in association management, you constantly are reinventing yourself, especially when you have a legislature that's turning over, a new governor, so you learn a lot of those skills. You don't realize it when you're young.  I always look back and think, “Wow, that job. I'm using skills from that job I never thought I would be using 20 years later.”

Thorne: That's fantastic. It's a great story. There are so many people that can tell that story because their first jobs were in retail. Gordon, you know, so much has changed. We talk in terms of pre-pandemic, pandemic, post-pandemic. Retail had to innovate. Retail had to make a lot of changes along the way as well. How have you seen that sustain? So, for example, we had a lot of conversations on Retail Gets Real with retailers during the pandemic, and one of the things that really struck me was … I worked for a large retailer at one point in time, and if you had an idea and you want it implemented in the stores, there was this process and it was a long and protracted process. What was happening during the pandemic was that these ideas would come up, and the thought process at the time was “Get it done. Just get it done. Roll it out. We don't need to try it here or to have everybody look at it and have a role in it. Let's just get it done.” Do you find that it's sustaining today with the retailers that you're working with?

Gough:  Yeah, absolutely. I would say that the conversation, probably from 2008 to before the pandemic was: “Brick-and-mortar retail is dead. It's never going to come back.” I think the pandemic showed the consumer [and] policymakers how important brick-and-mortar retail is to the community, to the economy, all of those things. 
I was on a call with some retail CEOs about six months into the pandemic and one of the comments was, “We had 10 years of innovation in six months.” We completely changed the paradigm on how people shop in comfort. We added — we talk about omnichannel, call it the consumer channel — we added a third lane. Now we can order online and pick up in the store.  So, I think retail continues to innovate and I think the question you're asking is — and it’s proven to policymakers and consumers — is that retail innovation is very fast. We'll meet the consumer where he or she wants to buy, to shop. 

Thorne: During the pandemic, of course, there was a lot of regulatory questions that were…Every single day things were shifting, things were changing.  Rachel, I know that in California, California is California, so there were people that really had to change their business model to accommodate what was going on. There were people that survived. There were people that didn't survive. What stories come out of the pandemic that you can now use in your day-to-day as you're advocating on behalf of retail to show that things were done right, but a lot of things were done wrong.

Michelin: One that always jumps at me is our smaller retailers and when we shut down in California. That period of time was crazy and I was getting calls from all over the country. I had some members saying, “Well, why can so-and-so be open and I can't” and I'm trying to navigate all of that. 

We were finally able to get the governor and his administration to realize curbside pickup, because at first, they shut everything down. We were able to get that opened up and a lot of our bigger retailers could use their stores as distribution centers. But what I loved was my smaller retailers took it as “Curbside pickup? OK, I’ll just move every single product out on the curb and I will just sell.” And I'm like, “Well, that's not really the gist of curbside pickup, but you know, that's retail innovation.” These were small retailers who couldn't switch quickly. They didn't have websites, necessarily, that you could buy online, pick up in the store. They were using Instagram, they were using Facebook. They were, to your point, just really innovating and trying to keep their heads above water. 

That was something that I was able to use later on when, at one point in California, I'm sitting on a call with the governor's office with this really bad feeling: He's going to shut everything down — including every retail — and telling retailers like a grocery retail, what you can and cannot sell in the store. Sometimes when you're in a situation like this, your inside voice just comes out because you're so frustrated, and I just said, “You can't do that.” They all like stopped and looked at me, and I said, “You are going to destroy lives more than what COVID is doing because particularly for our smaller retailers, they can't survive anymore.” The mental health piece of it and the stress, the physical stress of trying to keep your head above water. It just wouldn't happen. We were so focused on COVID sometimes in California, we were forgetting about the unintended consequences. And, they agreed and they kept the retail open at 20 percent during that holiday season for all retail.

But it was a really interesting story because I think we were able to show the innovation, particularly of the smaller retailers. That actually helped some of the larger brands stay open because we were able to use that story to show the governor and his team at the public health department that we just couldn't continue to keep our economy shut down.

Thorne: You know, there is advocacy. Every state has great advocates. Every state has great small business advocates, mid-sized business, large business advocates. Um, Scott, you know, Florida is very diverse, as everybody knows. How do you use those voices to effectively impact change in Tallahassee?
Shalley: Our strength is in our diversity and our weakness is in our diversity, right? Our job on behalf of our many members is to present a unified voice on behalf of the industry and that can be challenging. To the extent that that's compromised, it weakens our value. 

We really try to hone in on commonalities. I think the pandemic, if I could just kind of slide back to that real quick, we didn't hear about it in Florida, because we really didn't shut down much. But there were a lot of regulations. There was a lot of local government. My team — I think it was our finest hour in terms of the two teammates I have with me were right there at the front of it — we proved our value more than ever in terms of our work there, and then of course, the retailers responded well. 

But that diversity that you talk about allowed us to package many different messages in terms of, again, the global commonality of employing Floridians, supporting households, the mental health component that comes into play with having a job and being open. But like many things in a diverse state, different messages sell for different people, so that just requires us to be more adaptive. 
Thorne: Do you recall a story of a businessperson, a retailer, and again — large, small, perhaps small — that actually because of their involvement created an impact or a change? That something that they did, someone that they contacted, a relationship that they had, actually helped to advance what you needed to advance in your job. 

Shalley: Yeah, I think back to: All politics is local, right? We have extensive relationships, but we rely on individuals to make individual connections and tell their story.

We've had a few situations during the pandemic in the St. Pete area where you were seeing local government where they were basically holding the retailer accountable for the incoming person to wear a mask and those sorts of things. We were able to draw on that individual to make connections personally to head those things off and [help local government] understand that we're not in a position to police such a volatile issue, and that shouldn't be held at our level. 

Thorne: Kind of brings back memories. Gordon?

Gough: I think I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the terrific relationship we had with our governor and lieutenant governor, and their willingness to listen to reason and the conversations we were having.
We have a member headquartered in Columbus, a very large retailer, stores throughout the world. Ohio shut down on the 23rd of March of 2020, but this retailer was beginning to re-open stores on March 22nd in China, and she had a conversation with the governor to say, “There's a path forward.”

But the one point through all this is — and it just dawned on me while we were sitting here on the stage — I never heard from [anyone], large members to small members, that we're not going to get through this. “We're going to get through this. The world's going to change, but we're going to get through this.” So, I admire our members and what they did, and their employees, to keep the country going through our dark hour. I'm honored to just be one representative of the great industry we represent.

Thorne: It's true. I mean, everybody — absolutely the health care workers — everybody gets a big [round of] applause, but it's so often overlooked what the retail industry or stores, large and small people, what they did to protect their associates as well as serve their consumers in a safe manner. How they educated — it was extraordinary, and to think that that happened as quickly as it happened. But they just came to the fore.
Rachel, do you have any stories like that? 

Michelin: Yeah, you know, I take a different take too. I think retail also represented the recovery, because especially in California, when we were locked down, we had masking for a really long time. It was that moment where you could walk into a store without your mask on and shop and have that normalcy back. You would see people flooding to the malls or flooding to the stores because it was like, “This is normal again,” and I think retail played a huge role in that because the employees were there. They wanted to have people back. People wanted that interaction. I think they were kind of tired of the whole online side of things. They wanted to be in the store. We hit the holiday season [and] you got the decorations back, so that really helped mentally for people, particularly in California, really feel like we've turned a corner.

Retail played a huge role in that for all Californians, large and small, because we needed that since — we were locked down for over a year and a half — and we really needed to have that piece of it, and retail was such ….. 

I remember talking to a reporter about it because she was excited to be able to go back into the store and have that normal shopping experience where you didn't have to see the sign with the face masking. You weren't worried and employees didn't have to — to Scott's point — be the mask police. They could just do their job, which a lot of people go into retail because they like the interaction with, particularly, mostly people from their own community, because it’s very community-based. So, I think that was something that is overlooked, is the part that retail has really played in the recovery of making people feel like we've turned that corner, which I think is what Gordon talked about.

Shalley: If I could just add real quick because we've mentioned it a couple times. As far as bricks-and-mortar, but I think it's larger than that in terms of — Gordon used the term omnichannel. Obviously, we talk about, and I almost feel like — and I know many will disagree — but there were these divisions with regard to laws and who was open and who wasn't, all that kind of thing. I almost feel like it was an accelerated unification of the retail industry in terms of the fact that: One size doesn't fit all, and there's a place for everybody, and retail is sustainable. Nobody's dying. Everybody sort of trying to meet the consumer where they are and I think that it made everybody — from the biggest of the big to the smallest small — look at where they're missing opportunities.

Thorne: We talk a lot about the fact that during that time, we would hold calls — and we represent probably one of the most competitive industries in the world — and yet these people would get on the call — and these were CEOs and CFOs and HR — and they would share. They'd say, “We tried this and it worked and I would be happy to give you the information that we have as to how we implemented it and why it's working.” People would [say], “Please, pass it along,” and they'd implement it in their stores. It was just awesome to see the industry coming together to really serve not only the consumers and their associates, but themselves as an industry.

Shalley: I think that every time there’s a crisis, the retail community is right there, for sure. And it doesn't have to be a crisis, really. If you look around your community and you look at the backs of the little white jerseys, you know who's supporting the community. 

For us in Florida, hurricane season is obviously our big challenge. It amazes me every time we have a hurricane in terms of … the way that companies stepped up and it's not in a way of, “What's the PR play here?” It's legitimately a million different things happening behind the scenes that go unheralded that we don't always do the best job of honking our own horn or banging our own drum, whatever you want.

Michelin: I think to your point, Scott, what struck me during COVID was not just about how retailers are talking, but state associations were talking. We’d have conversations with people from all over the country. I’d call a colleague, “OK, what are you doing?” We used a lot of information from colleagues on reopening plan suggestions, and what's working in Florida or Ohio and how can we implement some of that? Even if they weren't necessarily a blue state, they were still ideas, and I think that was important too.  

I think it brought all of the state retail associations a little bit more on the same page because we all were kind of in the same boat. Yes, our states had different ways of approaching it, but we all had the same goal, which is: How do we get retail open again across the country, and so I think that was really great for me, because I had just started in this role as president. I hadn't even had my year anniversary before COVID hit. It was kind of baptism by fire and so there were a lot of times where I was calling people trying to just figure out how to navigate this global pandemic.

Thorne: Gordon, if you go into a retail shop and you know that they're not a member of your association, what's your pitch?

Gough: Value proposition for them has to be an interest in some sort in advocacy, because that is our bread and butter and what we do at the capital. But have a conversation about what their goals are and how we can potentially help them fulfill those goals. 

Thorne: Scott, when you go into a legislator's office and you're trying to advocate on behalf of your members, what do you tell them that you think really compels them? I mean, what is the one thing? And not your, not the son of the owner of the shoe store [you worked at]. 

Shalley: That one's an easy pitch, but I think it's about overall impact. We have a likable story. I hate to reference this — my staff's rolling their eyes because they hear it all the time — but in politics, I believe people do things for you because they fear you or they like you. We really don't have the muscles to make them fear us, OK? So, we try to be likable in our message. 

Now, that does not diminish at all … we will go toe-to-toe, and we will leave it all in the ring, and we fight very hard for our retailers. But we fight very hard in the same way that retailers fight for market share, which is with a smile on our face. I think that that's how we frame things in terms of going in and saying, “Look.” 

We generally are in a great place of selling a good message. I've been doing this — I've been in the legislative business for 30 something years. I haven't been able to form my own personal opinion on anything in that whole time because I have people to pay me for my opinion, to tell me what my opinion is. This job's been great because I've been very comfortable with what I've been told, so I think it's just you start with the truth and stay with the truth and it's usually a good message.

Thorne: The California legislature — that's something else. Talk about diversity. What is the thing that really compels people to listen to you, Rachel? 

Michelin: I always kind of start with that retail is in every single legislative district, so they all represent retail. Unlike some other industries — maybe tech, which is kind of centered in certain parts of the state — retail is everywhere and you are part of the retail industry because you shop. I kind of start there.
I’ll be candid: In California, you’ve got to find your friends and cultivate that, and I try to find different advocates as well. So, you know, you can convince some of the mod-Democrats that this is something [a bill] that's really going to be detrimental to the retail industry. How can I work with them then to lobby some of their more progressive colleagues?

It doesn't always work. I always say, to Scott's point, unfortunately in California we don't win on policy, we have to win on politics. Which means how do I utilize the media? How do I get the attention of the governor? How do you understand what are the buttons that you're going to be able to push when it comes to trying to get a legislated proposal through? But most of the time, we're on defense in California, where just how do we stop something? 
But at the same token, I think to your point, Scott, every legislative session, we go through all of the bills and we always try to find two or three that we can support. Sometimes it's more challenging than others, but there typically are bills that we can support. There are initiatives of the governor that we can support. So how do I build that political capital early because I'm going to need to use it at the end of session when I need to get a bill killed on the floor or a veto. But it’s hard. 

To Scott's point, in California, labor is very, very powerful and they're very powerful because they organize. They have people on the ground. They give money. Retailers: Our job is to sell products. We're not going to organize like that. 

But I also think that retail has to start thinking about the fact that, at least in California, we're moving into being a regulated industry like a lot of other industries. And at some point, there's going to have to be that conversation about, at the state level, how are we going to think differently to strategize, so that we can push back on some of these initiatives that are coming out of — whether it's the legislature, or in California, more importantly, it's the regulatory bodies. I get this all the time: California does something and it spreads. I try very hard to try to stop things in California so that it doesn't spread, but it's getting harder and harder to do. 

Thorne: Yeah. You know, it's interesting to me … Scott, you raised that retailers don't necessarily like to pound or beat their own chest or beat their own drum. And I think that one of the things that we try to do at NRF, and I'm sure that you have to do, is I tell them, “I will tell. You tell me and I'll tell your story, because those are important stories that are going to shift the way people think and what they do.” And it can get really annoying when you read something and you're like, “Why didn't we know about that ahead of time?”

Thorne: I've only got two minutes left, so I'm going to, and I'd be getting big trouble with the folks back at NRF, if I didn't ask this question: Best career advice you ever got. 

Gough: Best career advice and advice I would give anyone else is find a mentor. Find someone that's willing to show you the ropes on what your career path could be or what it's going to be. I've been very fortunate in my life to have several mentors. I think it's very important to give you unvarnished advice on the decisions you're making as a young person to help propel you to maybe the job that you want.

Michelin: I agree with the mentorship, but I also think take risks. I think a lot of times, I look back and, in my career, my biggest success basically came from me just saying, “I'm just going to jump in feet first and see what happens.” I was told a long time ago — by people that I was interning for, I worked for — really find that kitchen cabinet of people who you can go to help. That are going to be with you for the long haul. I think that’s really important. 

Thorne:  Thank you. Scott? 

Shalley: Hire people smarter than me, which has been miraculously easy.

Thorne: It's great advice. So, I want to thank Gordon and Rachel and Scott, you've been great guests. This has been a great conversation. Thank you for being a part of Retail Gets Real. And thanks to Bev Lynch and our hosts from the California Retailers Association. To find more information about this episode and others, please visit I'm Bill Thorne. This is Retail Gets Real. Until next time. 


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