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Retail leader sees strength in Ohio economy

National group’s president once lived in Springfield and graduated from Wittenberg.

Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, spoke at Wittenberg University’s commencement Saturday. The federation is a global retail trade association that lobbies for its members in Washington, D.C.

Shay earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Wittenberg in 1984, and he received an honorary doctorate degree in business administration during the commencement ceremony Saturday.

The Springfield News-Sun spoke with him about Wittenberg, the trends he sees in the retail trade and Ohio’s economy. Answers edited for length.

Q: What do you remember/love about Springfield?

A: I remember it was a very pretty town and the campus was beautiful … It felt like a nice, small town with the pace of life, the values, the whole sort of feeling was very comfortable. It’s the kind of place you think would be a great place to start a family.

Q: How did Wittenberg shape the direction of your career?

A: I think that was the place where I really formed my closest friendships with people that are friends of mine to this day and have been for more than 30 years. College is the kind of place where you start building your outlook on life and take responsibility for yourself for the first time. I had wonderful friends, great professors, learned a lot about myself and was set on the path.

Q: What are some of the major issues the NRF is dealing with on behalf of retail businesses?

A: The big one this week is the Internet sales tax, or the legislation that would make it possible for states to collect sales tax from brick-and-mortar stores as well as online remote sellers. That’s at the top of our list and the Senate just passed a bill that makes that possible. We’re also interested in corporate tax reform, and immigration and labor issues are very important to the members.

Q: What are some trends in retail going on nationally? How have your members weathered the recession?

A: The biggest, most dramatic trend that retailers are experiencing is the real convergence of brick and mortar, traditional, in-store retailing with online and mobile electronic commerce.

I think that because of consumer demands and the way people shop today, the level of engagement is no longer limited to either the brick-and-mortar facility or the online website exclusively. It’s a blending and a combo of both of those experiences. It’s representative of how we live today where everything is made available to us wherever and however we want to experience it … The ultimate expression is: Retail is retail and a sale is a sale.

Q: Does the NRF work with any Ohio or Springfield retailers? If so, what does the retail climate look like here?

A: We do, of course, and that ranges from large companies like The Limited and Kroger, to single unit, small retailers like Jack Seibert Goldsmith and Jewelers in Columbus and (Grismer Tires), a tire dealership in Dayton (and Springfield) for 80 years.

Ohio has a very robust retail industry with lots of big and small retailers there … I think Ohio has a rich history of retail business that is playing a significant role in the economy of the state and of course in local communities.

And that’s in many ways the sign of the overall strength of the economy and its ability to support retail businesses. Ohio has a great climate and is a great place to do business.

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