The economy in New Jersey is a tale of two cities, according to Linda Doherty, president and CEO of the New Jersey Food Council.
New Jersey was recently ranked as the most improved state for business, climbing 23 spots to 19th in America’s Top States for Business rankings by CNBC. This past year, it saw the fastest job growth of any state in the Northeast and outpaced the national average, Doherty said.
“On the other hand, a new analysis released [recently] from the nonprofit Truth in Accounting states that New Jersey taxpayers have the highest burden of state debt in the country despite years of improvement in state finances. Ranked 50th, New Jersey also receives an ‘F’ grade from this group because the taxpayer burden is $53,600,” she said.
The grocery industry in New Jersey, however, remains “strong and uber competitive,” said Doherty, who added there is a lingering sense of uncertainty heading into 2024.
“Nagging food inflation costs, increases in business operations expenses like insurance and energy, a jump in the state minimum wage to $15.13 an hour as of Jan. 1 and tensions in the Middle East all will impact the marketplace.”
The state’s independent grocers continue to deal with challenges such as labor shortages and supply chain issues but are doing so in a very “savvy” way, according to Doherty. They have overcome many of these obstacles by shifting to self-checkout lanes and expanding private label offerings.
“The growth in private label has not only helped contain costs for consumers, but it has created an opportunity at the Food Council as we are seeing more of these new food businesses joining our association,” she said. “Steady membership growth post pandemic in NJFC has been a welcome byproduct.”
As for inflation, while it may stabilize, Doherty believes it will not drop any time soon as New Jersey is a “high-cost state.”
It also is dealing with organized retail crime, which she said is a “significant threat” affecting retail establishments and communities. NJFC members are reporting increased physical violence and verbal assaults against store employees.
While the state already has strong organized retail crime laws on the books, the association is backing additional legislation designed to strengthen them and protect employees. These bills would “aggregate and increase penalties for retail crimes, gang shoplifting and assault of retail workers. We are working with lawmakers to support safe New Jersey communities,” Doherty said.
The NJFC has been holding its Loss Prevention Conference and Exhibition for nearly 40 years. This year’s event was Nov. 2.
“We have seen waves of retail crime for decades, and New Jersey food retailers meet annually at our event to develop innovative programs and best practices to prevent loss and keep customers safe,” she said.
NJFC and its Loss Prevention Committee are updating an Organized Retail Theft Training Program for Law Enforcement in conjunction with the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Prevention.
The program is called Operation: Safeguarding Our Communities. Local police use the modules for training and credits to gain a better understanding of identifying retail crime, learning about tactics and applying the laws on the books to combat organized retail theft.
While 2023 is an off-election year in some places, New Jersey is facing a “critical” statewide election, Doherty said, with all 120 legislative seats on the ballot this fall. Of those, nearly 30 percent of the incumbents are not running for re-election. Democrats currently hold the majority in both houses.
Doherty noted there are new competitive districts in the state, and there could be some election-night surprises.
“Voter frustration with the New Jersey political system in areas like parental rights, offshore wind protests, efforts to eliminate gas-powered vehicles and stoves, lack of affordability, record inflation and exorbitant taxes are on the ballot,” she said.
“Misguided packaging mandates, an attack on coupon policy, confusing date labeling standards and a menthol ban have successfully been stalled due to our efforts in Trenton. On a positive note, we have advocated for new laws such as Urban Enterprise Zone sales tax exemptions, SNAP funding increases and modernizing working papers online, all that benefit our membership.”
The legislative victory the association is most proud of is a new law that bans single-use paper and plastic shopping bags.
“The environmental, sustainable and economic impact are immense,” Doherty said. “We believe members and shoppers understand the value of this new law. We just created a new program for shoppers to donate their gently used reusable bags that are then sanitized and donated to local food banks, pantries and those in need.”
The “Blueprint for a Reusable Bag Redistribution Plan” came about at the direction of NJFC’s board of directors.
The public awareness campaign encourages shoppers to donate reusable bags that then will be cleaned and redistributed for use to New Jersey food banks, pantries and community social service programs.
NJFC is asking its members to participate and help spread the information and direct shoppers to donation locations throughout the state.
The association has created an informative Linktree to be initiated by either a QR Code or digital link that highlights local donation spots, allows towns to add bag collection events, explains the law and gives tips on how to clean bags, among other items on the issue.
“These consumer tools were created in collaboration with the NJ Clean Communities Council, county and local solid waste agencies, Community Food Bank of NJ and Recycle Coach specifically to advertise drop-off and collection sites for reusable bags to be sanitized and redistributed to NJ food banks, food pantries, senior groups and others in need,” Doherty said. “The effort began as a pilot project and has achieved astounding success. We now are engaging New Jersey food retailers to continue a more comprehensive rollout.”
Educational scholarship foundation
NJFC’s board of directors will hold its annual holiday party Dec. 6 to raise funds for its Educational Scholarship Foundation. Since the inception of the program in 2011, the three original scholarships have increased to 31, with the association and member company scholarship totaling $97,500 in 2023, Doherty said.
“These scholarships are a rewarding benefit for our members and their families. Each scholarship serves as an academic engine for the future generation of our member associates and their families. During our holiday party this year, we will announce the creation of the $5,000 Presidential Scholarship Award.”
Read more association news from The Shelby Report.