[October 16, 2006]

Health care, education top retailers' concerns

(Dallas Morning News, The (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) DALLAS _ Holiday sales are one thing, but what really keeps retail executives and their suppliers up at night are the big-picture issues they deal with year-round.

Health care, the need for talent in the industry and high school dropout rates dominate the concerns of major U.S. retailers, according to surveys conducted Monday in Dallas at the meeting of the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

And a top Wal-Mart executive challenged the industry trade group to get more involved. The group counts big-box retailers such as Best Buy, Petco and Lowe's and discounters Kmart and Target among its members.

"Wal-Mart may be at the pointy end of the spear, but the rest of the industry is right behind us," said Ray Bracy, vice president of corporate affairs for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "These challenges don't start and end with Wal-Mart."


The industry group has already stepped up its involvement.

In early February, association's board, chaired by Best Buy chief executive Bradbury H. Anderson, unanimously agreed to litigation to challenge newly enacted laws in Maryland and Suffolk County, N.Y., that require big-box retailers such as Wal-Mart to provide a specific level of employee health care benefits.

"It's a tragedy that so many people are uninsured," said David Perdue, chairman and chief executive of Dollar General Corp., the Tennessee-based chain of more than 8,000 stores. He said he thinks a health care solution shouldn't be left to the states. "It needs to be addressed at the federal level."

Perdue was among 400 retail industry executives who answered a survey on the biggest policy issues facing the industry.

Regarding attracting talent, only 17 percent of the audience responded that their companies have the right number of people with the talent to move ahead on key projects in 2007.

The CEOs also discussed statistics that show one-third of high school freshmen won't graduate.

"We all need to put more pressure on our government officials when programs such as education aren't working," Perdue said.

Finally, the industry has to tell its story better, Bracy said. Wal-Mart received 25,000 applications for 325 jobs at its Evergreen Park store near Chicago and 10,000 applications for a store in Atlanta.

"You all have similar stories to tell. Our jobs must not be so bad," he said, referring to legislative efforts to force big-box retailers to raise wages and benefits. "Think about the next bill. It may not be just for big boxes. It could be for medium and small boxes, too."

The two-day meeting ends Tuesday at the Fairmount Hotel in Dallas.

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(c) 2006, The Dallas Morning News.

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Copyright 2006 The Dallas Morning News

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