The holiday season was a merry one for the state’s retailers, according to Charlie Spakes, president of the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association.
Spakes’ organization lobbies for Arkansas’ food-sellers, grocers and retailers. Members include grocers like Kroger and Walmart, liquor stores like Ace Liquor Center and Lake Liquor, and retailers such as Home Depot and Keepsakes Jewelry & Gifts.
Spakes said 2017 retail sales through Arkansas’ brick-and-mortar locations during the all-important period bested 2016’s total by about 8 percent.
“That’s a great thing to see,” Spakes said. “Things are transitioning to online but it’s still nice to see that uptick and people actually going out and supporting stores in their communities.”
Last year’s Black Friday alone saw a whopping 16.9 percent increase nationally in year-over-year online sales, while foot traffic was essentially flat, according to CNN Money. Black Friday and Thanksgiving foot traffic was down about two percent nationally.
Spakes said the sales numbers underscore the importance of in-person retail in Arkansas, even as Internet sales continue to gain ground.
“We all like online retail. It’s very convenient, but there’s a lot of downfalls to it,” Spakes said. “You get something in the mail, especially clothing, customers like to touch and put it on and you just can’t do that with online transactions. If they don’t fit, you have to send it back, you have to wait.
“In Arkansas, where we can drive and get around a lot easier, it’s just as convenient if you’re going to get one of those personal-type items that you’re going to be wearing to just go pick it out.”
The holiday numbers are just one part of a productive year for Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association members. In March, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a new law allowing grocery stores to sell an expanded wine inventory. Previously, such outlets were limited to selling wine from very small producers and while the new measure was decried by liquor retailers, a lawsuit to block the measure failed, allowing the law to take effect in November.
“We were very supportive of that issue and I think it was a great policy,” Spakes said. “It gave the retailers that already sold wine the ability to sell any kind of wine. I don’t think there was a really good policy reason why they shouldn’t do that. That bill was 100 percent pro-consumer.
“I can see where some urban liquor stores were not happy, but that’s what happens when you lose a monopoly like they had.”
As big a victory as the wine measure was for some businesses, it pales in comparison to the matter of online sales tax, currently being debated by the U.S. Supreme Court. Brick-and-mortar stores have long held that online retailers’ exemption from sales tax (per the Supreme Court’s 1992 decision in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota) created an uneven playing field.
Not surprisingly, the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association is hoping the new case, South Dakota v. Wayfair, Overstock and Newegg, sees the court overturn its earlier decision. That ruling is expected this summer.
“I think it’s something that’s just fair,” Spakes said. “What I’ve told people in the past is, we’d advocate for zero sales tax to make it fair, either-or. Brick-and-mortar stores do not want any type of special privilege, they just want to be treated the same. The 10 percent [tax] that some of these online retailers are getting off the top can be a big difference.”
Spakes said the organization is not attempting to build on its wine victory by pushing for uniform beer and liquor sales across all Arkansas counties. He said the association respects the right of counties to maintain local control in determining wet or dry status, sales limitations such as restricted Sunday sales and allowable exceptions such as through breweries or private clubs.
“That’s a local control issue and however counties want to go at that issue they should,” Spakes said. “Going at it at a state level, you could do that, but it’s just not fair to the people [who] live in these counties who voted time and time again to keep it dry. I support the local type of control at the moment.”