Through the retail lens: Commitment to community and employees

Small business owner Lonnie McQuirter on his convenience store’s local impact

Lonnie McQuirter, owner of 36Lyn Refuel Station, has been feeling the impact of COVID-19 at his neighborhood convenience store. The store balances locally sourced and organic products along with the typical convenience store fare. Located in Minneapolis, it’s also been near the scene of many recent social justice demonstrations and protests; 36Lyn is less than two miles from the epicenter of the global movement.

Despite the challenges of the protests and the pandemic, McQuirter remains committed to his employees, his industry and his community. He spoke with NRF about the impact of the pandemic in particular and his hopes for the future.

Lonnie McQuirter of 36Lyn Refuel Station in Minneapolis
Lonnie McQuirter, Owner of 36Lyn
​​​​​​​Refuel Station

You have long talked about a commitment to employees. How has that been to manage through the pandemic?

When we were first seeing rumblings on COVID-19, I found all the great tools that NRF offered, along with resources from the CDC. Those were really important to give us a good understanding of where we’re at, where we’re going and what we need to do to maintain service so that we’re able to keep the doors open and in a safe, healthy manner.

Being able to learn what the titans of our industry were doing has given us confidence. The resources put employees at ease and helped us think through what would happen should someone test positive, what the protocol is to prevent transmission or what would happen if a customer has it.

It really has helped to keep the morale up. A lot of people let the news and media dictate what the employees are thinking versus involving them. When I see ideas, I share them with staff and ask for feedback: “If you think of a small way that we can keep safe and open, let me know.” Including employees in the discussion is really important in making sure they know they’re valued, and we care about their safety.

You’ve also been near some of the protests – how has that impacted your operations?

A lot of retailers have suffered from the looting and riots. I did have to watch my store with armed security for 10 days during that time. It was really an outpouring of community support.

A lot of neighbors wanted to make sure that our business was not one of the places that was looted and burned down. I didn’t understand that at first, but someone told me that we are critical infrastructure.

In some places, it’s a school or community center. The neighborhood that we are located at, the convenience store that we’ve worked hard to build up over the last 15 years, we are critical infrastructure to our community. If we had gotten torn down or burned up, it would have been detrimental to the community. This is where someone can go to get the essential items to survive.

In what ways do you see that these two things have impacted each other?

There were concerns early on that maybe police would have to limit their resources due to COVID-19. The bad guys would now know there are less people out there and fewer eyes on them. Their risks of getting caught have gone down and the rewards have gone up significantly.

That was a risk that I shared with my staff, a warning that crime was probably going to start to go up. That was before the George Floyd incident. I wasn’t looking at the public’s engagement with law enforcement. I was assuming there were a lot more professional retail criminals that would seize the opportunity.

When the protests and looting happened, I took out our store’s ATM. We had seen a real uptick in people looking for ATMs. There was a time sensitivity to it, to use an ATM to withdraw cash, a specific type of cash. I own the ATM and it’s my cash in there. I don’t want to support those people and I sure didn’t want to see it stolen.

Where do you see the role of retail in a community when we’re all in the midst of such upheaval?

It’s always “bricks-and-mortar versus Amazon.” That’s the wrong way to look at it. This is human, social interaction. When we trade goods and services, there’s a person behind it. When you need a safe place to go, a place to use the bathroom or get some Tums or Rolaids after the family Thanksgiving meal, you go to a convenience store.

Convenience stores represent the communities they are in. I want to work in communities where we can build something together. I can make a living and my employees can make a living wage and the community can have something they’re proud of.

People tend to forget we’re all connected. The American dream can still happen for people in retail with a high school degree.

What do you see as some of the lasting changes from COVID – pro or con – that will impact retail going forward?

Some of the technologies that we’ve seen at NRF or in industry magazines, like touchless technologies, there wasn’t really a solid ROI before. Now, it makes sense. With the unemployment rate dropping over the last few years, maybe it’s time to look at some of those things.

I think we’ll see more retailers embrace them. Our customers really dictate how far we can push technology and how ready people are to adopt technology. We’re seeing a cultural shift that is more receptive to some of these technologies.

Before, I never thought I’d see a baby boomer or [member of the] silent generation use a phone to pay for a transaction. But 2020 is like, “Hold my beer.” It’s really surprising to see how many people have learned pretty quickly how to use their cell phones to pay and to pay without engaging at all with a human being.

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