“I’m only the seventh CEO in our 115-year history. I’m very proud of the staff and direction our organization is going. Retail Alliance’s success is attributed to our staff who are passionate about our mission, and to the volunteer board of directors who have supported our efforts every step of the way,” said alliance CEO Raymond Mattes.
Since the company’s founding in 1903, the association has certainly changed direction a few times. Originally formed out of the Hampton Roads Chamber, it was an organization designated to focus specifically on retail in downtown Norfolk. The city in those days was the financial hub of the entire mid-Atlantic.
“We were involved with parades, city decorations over holidays, political forums for local councilmen and mayors. We determined delivery routes from Norfolk’s harbor and even made sure streets were cleaned of horse manure,” Mattes said.
“Back then there was a vibrant downtown. We got involved with the Jamestown Expo creating shopping junkets. Our staff would inform consumers from North Carolina about the city, and then help them travel here each year for holiday shopping.”
At the turn of the century there were very few banks, and commerce consisted of exchanging cash over barrels. By 1906, the alliance was changing that. It created a bureau of records for Norfolk and hired runners to pick up accounts receivable from local shops. For the first time in the region, households could hold their own accounts. So when a family wanted to buy new school shoes for their son, they could do it on credit.
The alliance stayed in the credit business as merchant associations and credit bureaus continued to pop up across the state and the country. But by the 1970s, it was time for another pivot.
It moved out of the downtown office and relocated to Poplar Hall near Military Circle, and focused on credit reporting and advocacy. Soon the group had over 100 employees and was operating a full-fledged credit bureau. It merged in the ‘80s with a Portsmouth agency to form The Retail Merchants Association of Tidewater.
In 2001 Retail Alliance sold its for-profit credit reporting files to consumer credit reporting agency Equifax and once again had to redefine itself.
“We decided to go back to our charter and to our roots as a merchant association,” Mattes said.
“Today we focus on advocacy, education, and products and services. We have a school – the Center for Retail Excellence – that helps new and prospective retailers learn to operate a business. We run an app, LoveVA, that lets consumers gather ‘hearts’ for visiting local retailers, which they can redeem for rewards while helping business owners track foot traffic.”
Retail Alliance today is a nonprofit taking a holistic approach to supporting the Hampton Roads retail community. It works with 450 local merchants and is devoted to strengthening the region’s mom-and-pop shops.
“Retail is an ongoing evolution. We’re trying to stay ahead of it and understand how to play in this new environment. We’re always going to fight for our members,” Mattes said.
Company name: Retail Merchants Association of Tidewater Virginia Inc., dba Retail Alliance
Founded: Dec. 4, 1903, Norfolk, by founding board members
Headquarters: 838 Granby St, Norfolk
The business: The Retail Alliance is a nonprofit trade association serving the interests of local retailers in Hampton Roads since 1903. We are committed to strengthening the retail community by championing retailers’ success, educating retailers, and building lasting relationships far beyond their membership. We promise to provide our retail and business partners with dependable, responsive and uncompromising products and service. We build alliances within the retail community, with vendors, industry and community leaders, and allied businesses for the success of our retail members.
Current owners: Governed by a board of directors; current chair is Joseph Taylor of Taylor’s Do-It Center. President/CEO is Raymond J. Mattes III.
Milestones reached: LoveVA was launched in 2014, providing a unique buy local program and mobile app that rewards consumers for shopping locally throughout Hampton Roads; launched Center for Retail Excellence in 2016 to serve aspiring and existing retailers by providing education and training services focused exclusively on retailing; Virginia Retail Federation was created in 2007, providing a statewide advocacy arm for Retail Alliance (in partnership with Retail Merchants Association in Richmond).
Obstacles overcome: Reinvented our offerings to remain relevant in an ever-changing retail environment.
Keys to longevity: “The most vital element of success in being a membership organization is listening to our constituency and determining what their current needs are,” Mattes said.
What’s next: To continue to pursue our mission statement, “to become a trusted resource for the success of local retailers”.
Article also featured on Inside Business.