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Shoppers will stampede through retail outlets across the country, kicking off the annual Black Friday ritual that marks the beginning of the holiday shopping season. But moving merchandise isn’t the only priority for the industry, which is finally showing signs of life after being forced to retool during the recent economic downturn.
While customers sift through bargain bins from now through New Year’s Day, the hard-hit sector’s primary trade group, the Retail Industry Leaders Association, will continue its behind-the-scenes lobbying drive on tax and trade issues, health care rules and possible job-spurring proposals.
“There are very few issues Congress considers that doesn’t have some kind of link to retail,” RILA spokesman Brian Dodge told Roll Call this week. “We have 15 million employees in the retail sector, so every employer/employee-related issue has implications.”
RILA’s membership includes holiday shopping meccas like Best Buy Co. Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., J.C. Penney & Co., Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. and Gap Inc., as well as year-around favorites like Walgreen Co., Ikea, Lowe’s Cos. and 7-Eleven Inc.
This year, RILA is on track to spend more than $2.5 million on federal lobbying, Secretary of the Senate records show. Its expected 2010 lobbying budget would mark a roughly $300,000 uptick from the previous year and nearly double from two years ago, when RILA spent $1.3 million on federal lobbying.
The organization’s political action committee, Retail Leaders PAC, also has stepped up its operations in recent years. In the 2009-2010 cycle, RILA’s PAC spent about $150,000 on political contributions, doling out two-thirds to Republicans, according to CQ MoneyLine.
The previous cycle, RILA’s PAC wrote more than $100,000 worth of campaign checks to political candidates, including $47,500 to Republicans and $36,000 to Democrats.
In an interview, Dodge said jobs-related legislation continues to be a major issue because of the entrenched nature of the retail sector, which grew by about 7 percent over the past year, according to Commerce Department data out last week.
“Given the state of Congress, given the state of the retail industry, job creation is still a major focus,” Dodge said. “Not only do we want to be able to grow our companies by hiring more employees, but consumers are workers and workers are consumers — the better job we do with unemployment, the better off the retail industry will be over the long haul.”
The implementation of the Democratic-backed health care law by federal agencies also continues to be a big lobbying front for retailers, many of which offer “mini-med” plans to their employees. These low-cost insurance plans were a primary target of the White House and Congressional Democrats in the final bill because of their arguably high administrative fees.
Retailers are looking at “how we’re going to get those costs down, how the rule-making efforts are going to affect the stability and predictability and costs for retailers going forward,” Dodge said. “We’ve been watching that very, very carefully and we’re engaged in the process.”
With most goodies in Santa’s bag now made in Asia and other global manufacturing hubs, RILA is also keeping a close eye on the White House and Congress when it comes to trade policy this holiday season. Retailers are also pressing Members to extend a research and development tax credit and other revenue measures that could make or break a company’s decision to open up new brick-and-mortar locations.
“Certainty in the tax code is critical to our long-term investments,” Dodge said. “Our guys build stores with an eye towards 15 to 20 years down the road, so having a predictability in the tax code is critical to their ability to do that.”
Ahead of Friday’s hordes, Dodge acknowledged that the retail market “is still difficult.” In late October, the Conference Board Consumer Confidence Index was up to 50 percent from 48.6 percent the month before, results that the survey’s pollster described as “mixed” and “still hovering at historically low levels.”
Still, heading into Friday’s start of the holiday shopping season, Dodge said there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
“We’re finally seeing growth,” he said.