CEO: State’s recovery may hinge on retail sales
by Mary Margaret Stewart, staff writer
When it came to initial COVID-19 pandemic response, the Illinois Retail Merchants Association started early, according to President and CEO Rob Karr.
“I was fortunate, I suppose, to have a son who was a foreign exchange student in Spain at the time, so I was getting frontline feedback from what he was experiencing before he was brought home,” Karr said.
“Just recognizing, ‘This is what’s going on, this is what they did in other countries, and this is what might happen here.’ Then, we got in front of the governor’s office and the Chicago mayor’s office early to try to help shape an approach to COVID.”
Karr said IRMA dove right in, leveraging its power to help the supply chain. It worked to increase weight loads and suspend restrictions on driver hours and deliveries – anything to help move more product through the pipeline more quickly.
In addition, the association joined with the Department of Public Health on social distancing measures, as well as the Department of Labor to ensure that workers who wanted to work overtime in distribution centers could do so without having to file a paper or a permit every time.
And Karr could “not be more proud” of the retail industry as a whole, particularly the grocery segment.
“Not only were [grocers] meeting historic consumer demand, not only were they dealing oftentimes with short-tempered customers, but they were also putting in place enhanced cleaning and safety procedures. And they were often doing this well ahead of government,” he said.
“A lot of people like to think government imposed the social distancing standards, but in many regards, they were borrowing from the experiences that we were sharing with them, particularly from the grocery segment.”
“People forget that retail was denied access to [personal protective equipment] by the government because they wanted to shift it to healthcare workers, which we totally understood. But that also forced retail to have to do things like the Plexiglass shields; to experiment with your own face coverings; to think through all their processes and how customers flow through the store – everything from the parking lot to the back end. And I could not have been more proud about the way that retail responded to that.”
Today in Illinois, the state is in phase four. It’s been divided into 11 regions, and every region’s response is based on how it’s doing in terms of, No. 1, the positivity rate but also hospital capacity, ICU capacity and ventilator capacity. If a region has a positivity rate of above 8 percent for three consecutive days, then mitigation efforts are put in place.
“For example, the first responses so far in the regions that have gone backwards has been to restrict capacity and in-house dining, for restaurants and taverns in particular,” Karr said. “But they could do other things – they have left it open to try to take a more laser-like approach rather than a more general approach.”
As Karr put it, IRMA advocates on behalf of retailers of all sizes, from the largest to the smallest. And no matter the phase, the association has been a consistent advocate for them.
“We’re the ones who said we’ve got to keep restaurants open for takeout, delivery and curbside. They were originally going to shut them completely,” Karr said.
“We said, ‘You can’t do that, and here’s why. One, they can serve safely through those means. Two, you’ve got to relieve pressure off the grocery segment; you’ve got to give consumers who were staying at home another food option, other than the grocery store.’
“We also advocated originally that all retail could stay open under the same safety procedures. Now, we lost that argument. But I think now we all admit, based on science, that we could’ve done that.”
In addition to advocacy, IRMA coordinated with other business organizations in their response.
“There was an attempt to expand workers’ comp benefits by rule, which was not legal, so IRMA and the Manufacturers Association took the lead in the lawsuit,” Karr said. “We were supported financially by about two dozen other business associations. We were successful in that and then ultimately came to an agreement through the legislative process.”
All things considered, though, Karr believes that the pandemic has had an upside.
“I think it has demonstrated the absolute importance of the retail sector, at least in Illinois. It was often overlooked prior to the pandemic,” he said.
“It has now forced people to come to the realization that we are the largest revenue generator of taxes for local governments, we’re the second largest for the state and we’re the largest employer by sector.
“So as go retail sales, so goes the ability of the state and units of local government to recover.”
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