Thursday, January 12, 2017

Guilt By Too Many Associations

It was one of those news stories which comes along with depressing frequency. Whenever the official sales periods are about to start, have come to an end or are even weeks past, up pop retailers' associations to complain about the market liberalisation which has allowed sales and promotions at times other than during the official sales periods. (There are two such periods: in winter and in summer.)

We therefore had not one, not two but three associations (or federations or whatever) saying roughly the same thing prior to the current sales campaign. The only novelty was that one of the associations suggested that other associations - those for larger retailers - are beginning to think like they do; they being representatives of smaller retailers.

And which were these smaller-representing associations? They were Afedeco, Pimeco and the Balearic trade (retail) confederation. Their presidents were quoted in agreeing with each other, some statistics were dragged out (based on one of the association's "barometers" of sales activity), the Rajoy government was berated, and it was said - once more - that consumers are confused by the fact that there can be sales at times other than the official sales periods. Are consumers confused? I suppose one has to take the associations' words for it, given that the words are similar.

Reading this story, I asked myself why there are these different associations. In this instance, as has been the case in the past, a normal curiosity and willingness to research what and who they represent was set aside. When it comes to retailers' associations, I've lost the will to live, and if I have, then I suspect others reading the same story will be of like mind. There is an abundance of associations making the same points. It smacks of overkill. Why don't they just form one association and have done with it?

Which isn't to deny the rightful place that associations have, whether in business or for other purposes. No, associations are absolutely crucial in defending and promoting the interests of those they represent. The fact of associationism isn't at issue; its extent is what is.

Allied to this is the repetitious nature of the message. Of course, if it is made often enough, it may have an impact in influencing public or political attitudes and so bringing about desired change. Associations are, in many cases, lobby groups. Their announcements in the media are intended only so much for the public's consumption. There are politicians being targeted as well. But the repetitiousness can also have an adverse effect. Say things so often and the intended audience is turned off. It ceases to listen because it's been heard so many times.

In the specific case of retailing, it's not as though I don't have sympathy with the smaller retailers. Moreover, the current regional government is sympathetic to them, placing much store (sic) on "local" business, namely the smaller retailer as opposed to the larger ones and multiple chains. A left-wing regime in the Balearics is thus, once more, butting heads with a right-wing national administration, whose business allies are the grander retailers.

The cause is therefore not wrong, the campaigning is therefore not unjustified, although it doesn't follow that holding sales outside the official periods is solely the preserve of the larger retailers; this is manifestly not the case. The bottom line with the argument in favour of a reversal of market liberalisation and the re-establishment of official sales periods alone is that everyone is a winner - all retailers and all consumers. Discuss.

But when they talk of consumers - be they consumers of news or of goods and services - being confused by the liberalisation, are they not guilty of creating confusion by their very associational proliferation? Why are there all these associations, and does anyone care?

Toni Abrines, president of the Aviba travel agencies' association, has spoken about why people should care. He makes the case for the absolute need for associations. He notes, though, that an association doesn't always do things for the best in terms of the interests it is supposed to be defending or of wider society/economy. There is also the issue of all pulling in the same direction, which can be difficult enough within one association, but when there are several with different messages, then which one will be listened to? Any?

At least the associations for the retailers generally seem to have similar messages, but these do differ when one includes the associations for the larger retailers. Hence, there are conflicting views, and it becomes a case of who shouts loudest and most often. Residents' associations in Palma are another example. They seem to be in competition to see who can get the town hall to listen. In the end, because of the number, the rival messages and a fair degree of pomposity, there's the danger that no one is listened to.

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