ALBANY, N.Y. — Foodservice-centric convenience stores. A $15 minimum wage. Pay at the pump.
These are just a few topics New York Association of Convenience Stores (NYACS) co-founders John MacDougall, Dick Warrender and Bob Seng would have never imagined 30 years ago, Jim Calvin, current president of NYACS, told Convenience Store News.
NYACS — a private, not-for-profit organization that celebrated its 30th anniversary this spring — still embodies one core purpose, though: to lead, safeguard and forge a favorable environment for New York State’s diverse community of neighborhood c-stores.
Founded in 1986, NYACS’ retail membership consists of more than 100 companies that range in operations from one store to more than 300. While most c-store chains in New York State are NYACS members, single-store operators account for many of its member retail companies. Collectively, its retail members operate more than 1,500 store locations from Hamburg, Eric Country, to Hoosick Falls near the Vermont border, to Hempstead, Long Island.
The association, headquartered in downtown Albany, just two blocks from the state capitol, also has more than 100 associate members, or companies that supply products and services.
Today, some of the issues most prevalent to NYACS include: Food and Drug Administration tobacco regulations; the State Liquor Authority's practice of instructing undercover minors to lie about their age to bait stores into illegally selling them beer; excise tax rates; and excessive credit card swipe fees, according to Calvin. CSNews recently caught up with the association chief to reflect on the past 30 years and what makes the c-store landscape in New York so unique.
CSNews: Over the past 30 years, how has NYACS evolved in its purpose?
Calvin: Our role is the same: to lead, inform and represent New York’s neighborhood convenience stores. We do that by delivering vital knowledge, a unified voice on legislative and regulatory issues, and ways for members to share ideas, address common challenges and build relationships.
In what ways has the c-store landscape in New York evolved over the past 30 years?
Our co-founders could never have envisioned the degree to which chronically bad policymaking in Albany would handicap the trade at every turn; the waves of consolidation that would transform the retail and supplier sides of the business; the advent of foodservice-centric c-stores as big as 6,500 square feet; a soon-to-be $15 an hour minimum wage; or the marvels of pay at the pump, paperless invoices, Facebook pre-ordering, Powerball and 5-hour Energy.
What issues are N.Y. c-stores and NYACS facing now vs. then?
The original New York State Bottle Bill was the catalyst for NYACS’ creation in 1986. It was an issue that universally affected convenience stores. We still fight issues that impact New York c-stores globally — minimum wage, paid family leave, mandatory fire suppression, cigarette and motor fuel tax fairness, food and beverage restrictions, exorbitant swipe fees, and others.
Are there any issues NYACS dealt with back then that are still relevant today?
The one constant has been the quest for fairness for our channel of trade. Why can tribal enterprises sell the same products we do without charging state and local taxes, gaining an enormous price advantage? Why do undercover alcohol stings always hit c-stores but seldom drugstores that sell beer? Why is the retail handling fee for redeeming bottle deposits sufficient to cover costs incurred by big-box stores with reverse vending machines, but not convenience stores that redeem containers manually?
In the past 30 years, what have been NYACS' greatest legislative wins?
The sad truth is that when we win, usually we only win the right to fight the same battle the following year. C-store issues seldom go away. However, one win I’m especially proud of was overturning a new state law increasing the state tobacco license fee from $100 per store per year to $1,000 to $5,000, depending on annual gross sales including motor fuel. NYACS and allied trade associations refused to accept it, going to court to block implementation, then negotiating a more reasonable $300-per-store fee. This initiative continues to save our retail members a combined $3 million every year.
How has the industry makeup changed in the past 30 years for chains and single-store operations in New York?
Chains are bigger. More of them are headquartered out of state and publicly traded. The ethnic composition of the single-store operator community is infinitely more diverse. Ownership turnover among independents is higher.
What makes convenience retailing in New York unique?
Lousy cigarette volumes compared with the national average, due to worst-in-the-nation cigarette tax evasion. Cigarettes account for 36 percent of inside sales nationally. Here, you’re lucky if that’s 15 percent or 20 percent, because more than half the cigarettes consumed in New York are purchased from border states, tax-free tribal stores or the black market in order to avoid the state’s $4.35-per-pack excise tax, highest in the U.S. So, you’re starting out with a gaping hole in your P&L. The dearth of cigarette sales suppresses customer counts, affecting every other product category.
With many of your member retail companies being single-store operators, and a majority of N.Y. c-stores being singly operated, what does that tell you about the overall c-store landscape?
I’m amazed at the resilience of single-store enterprises. Given New York’s hostile business climate, it’s a miracle they survive. Only through sheer determination and hard work do they and their families manage to keep the lights on, serve their customers, collect state and local taxes, provide employment opportunities, support their communities, comply with onerous regulations, and make ends meet.