Small retailers urged to ‘tell it with passion’ at NRF advocacy boot camp

Hearing from retailers is one of the best ways for members of Congress to weigh the impact legislation debated in Washington will have back home, says Representative Jackie Walorski — relationships with small business owners help lawmakers stay connected to the pulse of the communities they represent.

“The way you beat politics is grassroots activity,” the third-term Indiana Republican said this week. “You are mainstream America, and your voice does count.”

“Tell your story, and when you tell your story, tell it with passion,” Walorski added. “It’s your voice that we’re all here for.”

“Tell your story, and when you tell your story, tell it with passion.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski

Walorski was the keynote speaker as two dozen small retailers from across the country gathered in Washington for the first-ever NRF Retail Advocacy Boot Camp. Participants were briefed on current issues pending in Congress by NRF experts, heard advocacy success stories from fellow retailers and learned how to use storytelling to influence lawmakers before spending an afternoon meeting with dozens of members of the House and Senate from their home states.

The event focused on the importance of working with Congress and how retailers can use personal stories to tell lawmakers how they are affected by policy decisions. Fellow business owners told attendees advocacy doesn’t begin or end in Washington, and that they must be engaged throughout the year and in their hometowns.

“We don’t have enough time, but we take the time because it’s important,” said Neil Abramson of ECI Stores consignment shops in Leominster, Mass., referring to trips to Washington and state capitals. “Advocacy is important.”

“You’re probably not going to get an answer today,” he said. “This is a long game. But you’re not in business just for today. You’re in business for the long term.”

Erin Calvo-Bacci, owner of the CB Stuffer chocolate shop in Swampscott, Mass., has been active with NRF on a variety of issues. She urged retailers to reach out to members of Congress but to also “encourage everyone in your community to engage.” By explaining to customers and fellow business owners how they are impacted by congressional actions and urging them to also contact Congress, she said, the impact on lawmakers can be magnified.

Rep Jackie Walorski with Danny Reynolds, owner of Stephenson’s of Elkhart
Rep Jackie Walorski (right) with Danny Reynolds (left)

Danny Reynolds, owner of Stephenson’s of Elkhart, a fashion-oriented clothing store in Indiana, hosted Walorski last fall for one of several store tours by members of Congress arranged by NRF and state retail associations.

“Our voices really do matter,” Reynolds said of dealing with Congress. “They’re really interested. It’s easy to forget, but they work for us. They know that you and your employees and your customers are their constituents.”

According to Seth Turner, director of citizen engagement at the Congressional Management Foundation, 78 percent of lawmakers surveyed say hearing a personal story is helpful, but only 18 percent say it happens frequently. Turner urged small retailers to “play the underdog” when telling their stories to members of Congress.

“You’re the reality of policy,” NRF Senior Vice President for Government Relations David French, told the group. “All of you can help with your stories to localize and personalize the issues we talk about.”

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