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Retail Council Of NYS Has New Leader Amid Pandemic, Busy Shopping Season

Melissa O'Connor
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Melissa O'Connor

The Retail Council of New York State has a new president and CEO as the industry navigates government restrictions and health concerns amid a global pandemic. All this comes during what is typically the busiest shopping period of the year. Melissa O’Connor has taken over for Ted Potrikus, who spent about three decades with the Council before retiring.

WAMC's Jim Levulis spoke with O’Connor, who joined the Council in 2005 and has handled government relations, about how the organization has approached the retail climate this year.

O’Connor: 2020 has obviously thrown everyone in the world a curveball. And from my seat in 2020, we have to take a look at the directives that are coming from, you know, the federal government, the state government, and make sure that we are communicating to our members, all of the guidelines that needs to be implemented in order to operate safely, not only for consumers, but also our employees as well. So safety is of the utmost importance, it is the top priority. And the retail industry has demonstrated over the past several months that it is possible to operate safely while keeping New Yorkers employed. So, you know, things are changing on a daily basis. And I think that is something that we take very seriously. We’re communicating with retailers across the state on a daily, if not hourly basis, and they have really just risen to the challenge of 2020 and the public health pandemic.

Levulis: And what are the council's thoughts and the council members’ thoughts on the government restrictions that we've seen throughout the pandemic?

Sure. So the retail industry is obviously going through a challenging time like everyone else. At this time, we appreciate the science-based hyper-focus approach to controlling the virus here in New York. Another widespread shutdown of New York's economy would be devastating, quite frankly, for retailers throughout the state, and our employees and the local communities. I think Governor [Andrew] Cuomo currently recognizes this reality, while also balancing the need to control the virus in certain problem areas.

And obviously, we're speaking during perhaps the busiest - if I'm correct in characterizing it that way – traditionally the busiest shopping week of the calendar year here in the United States. So how's the retail sector adjusting with the obviously the year over year demand during this time of year, but given all the different circumstances we all are facing?

So the retail industry, as I mentioned, has really had to change on a dime, every given day. We are actually in the middle of the holiday shopping season. So our message throughout the past few months has been to consumers shop early, shop safely wear a mask, wash your hands. And I think you will see that retailers throughout the state and the nation have unveiled sales sooner than normal. And that is by design so that there will not be, you know, a mad rush on Black Friday to get your purchases, the sales have already commenced. I've said it before, but if you saw my inbox right now, you would think it's Black Friday or Cyber Monday. The sales are there. We urge customers to you know, shop early. Again, you know, all of the stores in New York are following the required directives from the state so no store can exceed 50% capacity. So that is to ensure social distancing takes place even on Black Friday and even as we're heading into the holiday shopping season.

Nationally, consumer spending is such a key portion of our nation's economy. So how have consumers been reacting to the adjusted retail landscape?

So the U.S. Census Bureau last week reported that retail sales in October or up 0.3% seasonally adjusted from some from September and up 5.7% year over year. So this is very good news considering the unemployment rate in the state is 9.6%, according to the state's Department of Labor. Industry estimates suggest more than 40% of consumers started their holiday shopping sooner this year. So you know the industry's message has resonated in terms of shopping early and safely.

Understanding that nobody has a magic eight ball, is there anything that you've seen occur in the retail sector during this pandemic that you think will stick around after hopefully the world gets its arms around COVID-19?

Industry estimates suggest more customers will shop online this year. I certainly think that that is something that has been trending over the past several years, and that is here to stay. While there's definitely a time and a place for online shopping, we encourage consumers to shop at their local store. There has never been a more important time to support your local economy. And again, safety is of the utmost importance. So just wear your mask and wash your hands. And the stores are really doing everything they can to implement, you know, cleaning protocol, and every guidance that has been issued thus far.

And to that point of supporting local, I understand the Retail Council of New York State has established a sort of inventory of businesses, is that right?

We have. So we launched retail in New York at the height of the pandemic, obviously, quote, unquote, non-essential stores were forced to close. And we were doing everything in our power to make it just a little bit easier for small businesses to get their name out there, their store some visibility. So right now we have nearly 550 stores that are listed on our Retail New York website. They're small independent stores predominantly. And it's a really nice way to highlight local stores, who again, during the height of the pandemic we're forced to close.

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