Minding their business Speaking up: The Maryland Retailers Association has tackled merchants' issues from laws to utility rates for 50 years.

October 05, 1998|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

In September 1948, less than a decade before Maryland would get its first shopping mall, merchants from the downtowns of Baltimore, Annapolis, Cambridge, Towson and other towns gathered at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, united by what they saw as a threat -- the state's new 2 percent sales tax.

Since that day 50 years ago when the Maryland Retailers Association got its start, retail hubs have shifted to the suburbs, the sales tax has been raised several times and retailers such as Hutzler's and Hamburger's that were represented at the hotel meeting have disappeared.

Today, as the group prepares to mark its 50th anniversary, the association is thriving as the state's major retail trade group with 625 members, including most of the national and regional retailers in the state, a $500,000 annual budget and a staff of four, including two lobbyists.

Over the years, retailers say, the association, headquartered in downtown Annapolis, has remained a potent force, making a difference in the day-to-day business of running stores by tackling issues from blue laws to bad checks to electricity deregulation.

"Legislation was the reason [the earliest members] came together, and it's still our most important function," said Tom Saquella, the group's president since 1985. "I honestly can say if we didn't have a voice in Annapolis, the laws would be more difficult for retailers."

Besides proposing and reacting to legislation, the group's focus has expanded over the years to include programs on information especially crucial for small retailers, such as managing inventory and using computers in stores, he said.

"Most small businessmen are absolutely bombarded by organizations that claim we're the national this or that and do not have the opportunity to impact either daily business or daily lives," said Alvin Levi, owner of Howard Street Jewelers, a family business since 1945.

The association "has provided opportunities for retailers, so they collectively can obtain services at lower rates -- the larger stores have the ability to negotiate because of their size," Levi said. When the group started, retailers were predominantly local companies. Founding members tended to have their names on their stores -- Samuel Hecht, Isaac Hamburger and Alfred and Morton Hutzler, to name a few.

Today, about 70 percent of the members are small or independent retailers.

"That's one of the challenges facing the industry," Saquella said.

"Keeping those independent retailers in business as more and more national retailers come into Maryland."

National chains typically have joined the retailers association as they have moved into the area, with Target and Kohl's among the newer members.

Small and large retailers have often found themselves on the same side of an issue. But for years, the existence of Maryland's blue laws, which prevented retail commerce on Sundays, divided the membership. Opponents of repealing the blue laws feared that small store operators would be forced to open Sundays to compete with larger companies that could afford to hire more help.

When Saquella came in as president in 1985, blue laws varied from county to county. He pushed for members to take a position and put the issue behind them. In 1987, they voted to support repeal.

"Times were changing, and a lot of customers wanted to shop on Sunday, with both heads of the household working," he said. "It made it inevitable it would change."

The passage a few years ago of legislation that created a civil venue for recovering on bad checks -- a problem that costs retailers millions in losses -- represented a key victory for the group.

"We handle more checks in our stores than many banks handle," said Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Food Inc. and a vice chairman of the association's board. "The check losses was a significant amount of money, and still are today. But because of the bad-check laws in Maryland, we are able to recover more bad checks today through civil penalties than before."

More recently, the group has worked to get the state to accelerate its plans to deregulate electric utilities, which is expected to reduce the cost of electricity -- a big-ticket item for retailers, Saquella said. And, 50 years later, the state sales tax is still a source of concern, he said, and the group vows to fight any efforts to raise it.

"We're right at the doorstep with Delaware, with no sales tax, and Pennsylvania, with no sales tax on clothing," he said. "We don't want our sales tax at a level that would put us at a difficult situation."

Pub Date: 10/05/98

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