Retail’s Contract Is Broken As Yossarian Exits Stage Left


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Retail’s contract with government seems to have expired, as there is hardly any pro-retail movement on Capitol Hill of late. Could the industry have fallen behind other advocacy groups – who are pushing the concept that they are more important to the economy than retail? Of course, that would be a strange revelation, given that two-thirds of America’s GDP is based on consumer spending. To the casual observer this summer – retailers, brands, and product sourcing companies appear to be lying in the sand with their paws in the air – asking for a federal belly rub that just isn’t going to arrive.

In prior years, when the retail going got really tough, pundits could turn for sage advice to the wisdom of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, where his Yossarian character had the ability to analyze most predicaments as they relate to government. Sadly, on June 29th that option was partially removed – as the multi-talented actor Alan Arkin (who played Yossarian in the movie version of Heller’s book) passed away. Mr. Arkin, of course, was not a retailer, but America lost a truly unique individual and a superb character actor.

Lovers of Joseph Heller’s 1961 Catch-22 novel knew that Mr. Arkin’s movie portrayal of Yossarian – showed a character whose entire existence was threatened by the government’s inability to define what they wanted (much like the way retail is treated today). Captain Yossarian was a 25-year-old Army bombardier who was trapped in his profession – unable to escape as he constantly groused about his endless disputes with federal bureaucracy.

Anyone who has worked in retail can understand and align with the similarities to Heller’s Catch-22. There is the on-going fear that retail destiny is spinning out of control – partially because of issues with government oversight – combined with a federal bureaucracy that continues to alter the ability to trade. If that isn’t enough to sound an alarm, there are always NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organizations) who can finish the job by fueling issues related to labor, sustainability, or the environment.

In the Catch-22 novel, the dialogue can be also aligned with the current retail conundrum:

“There’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“There’s shooting at everyone,” Clevenger answered.

Newt Gingrich in 1994 successfully released his “Contract With America.” It was an attempt to establish a working relationship between the federal government and the American people. The idea was about a workable contract would serve as the bond that could be trusted. Unfortunately, in today’s retail world – the bonds created by the government (like numerous trade programs) are unraveling one-by-one which, by itself, creates a modern-day version of Catch-22.

In 1995, as China was offered access to the WTO (World Trade Organization) and the right-to-ship privilege for other countries (called quota) was scheduled to be removed. This defining moment in world trade caused a seismic shift of product sourcing- from original country sources to China. Today, the American government is systematically reversing that process under the guise of de-risking the supply chain. The problem is that many American retailers (over the years) have made significant investments in China and have become reliant on China and are seriously finding it difficult to leave.

After Newt Gingrich’s contract idea, federal policies continued to encourage retail to develop product sourcing in faraway lands and many of these ventures turned out to be extremely risky. For example, in Myanmar (Burma), sourcing has been slowed by a military coup. In Nicaragua, the country is functioning, but there is jeopardy there as well. Retailers and sourcing teams also worked to utilize The African Growth & Opportunity Act (AGOA) – and millions of retail investment dollars were pumped into places like Ethiopia – which only left retailers dumbfounded – when President Biden pulled the benefits away. The list goes on, but it has become clear that investments outside of China are tenuous at best. It almost seems like the exit doors get blocked and there are no new American trade deals that are being negotiated.

Over time, other trading concepts were added by the federal arsenal, but they are also becoming dysfunctional as part of the retail contract with America. One useful concept was the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) and another the Miscellaneous Tariff Bills (MTB’s). These legislative trade packages have actually expired since Team Biden came into office, and retailers are forced pay high taxes (after having moved their production and investing millions to save on the same taxes that they are now paying). Clearly, this disruptive action raises the bar on consumer inflation – and yet, few in government seem to react – or even care that their own actions are part of the problem. This entire malfunctioning process makes one wonder about retail’s own version of a contract with America. It seems like the federal government has decided to let it lapse.

One frustrated company moved products to a GSP eligible country (to save on duty), but Congress failed to renew the program and they have been paying duty and higher prices ever since. Another company has to be extremely careful about complying with Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (UFLPA), but they are competing for market share against foreign de minimis users whose goods are not inspected for UFLPA and are also free of all duty and tariff. Still another company moved product to Ethiopia to take advantage of AGOA but was flabbergasted when Team Biden withdrew the AGOA benefit. Finally, another company was aghast when they realized that they were shipping goods to the U.S. West Coast ports – on ships that America doesn’t own, into ports that America doesn’t control, while using dock labor that can strike at any time. Retailers are wondering – is it just me or is this happening to everyone in retail?

In Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Yossarian essentially asked what difference all this could make:

“There’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.

“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.

“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.

“There’s shooting at everyone,” Clevenger answered. “There’s trying to kill everyone.”

“And what difference does that make?”

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Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden
Lisa Holden is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes health, sport, tech, and more. Some of her favorite topics include the latest trends in fitness and wellness, the best ways to use technology to improve your life, and the latest developments in medical research.

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