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Add phone kiosk to closed business and reopen as ‘essential’, email said

A closed sign is displayed on a storefront downtown Rome. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
A closed sign is displayed on a storefront downtown Rome. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

National marketer drops program after AJC raises questions about dodging shut-down orders.

Businesses across the nation have been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps none more than independent retailers who have shuttered their doors — either willingly or under state order — because the goods or services they offer are not “essential.”

So when Steve Levin, owner of a Miami furniture store, opened his email earlier this month, one pitch from sales rep raised his eyebrows.

“Our #1 focus is keeping your doors OPEN,” it announced. “Even if you have already closed your doors, you can enroll in this program and re-open.”

The program, called “AT&T Essentials,” said ordinarily non-essential businesses could re-open by paying a few hundred dollars and adding an AT&T kiosk to their storefront to sell internet and television services.

“Fortunately, AT&T is considered an essential service and any dealer who sells their service, becomes an Essential Business,” the email promised.

Levin said he was surprised by what he called “a really thinly veiled attempt to pretend you are an essential business.”

The email came from the southeastern territorial manager of DSI Systems, a Dallas, Texas,-based communications company, but it carried the logo of Nationwide Marketing Group, a large marketing company that represents thousands of independent retailers across the nation. The email apparently went out to retailers in Georgia, Florida and other southeastern states.

“The first thing I did when I got the email, I replied to it and copied my former rep with Nationwide Marketing Group,” he said. “I asked, why would you offer this? Who thought this was a good idea?”

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp’s shelter-in-place executive order closed some businesses, including gyms, salons and dine-in restaurants, but he did not require most businesses to close as long as they observed social distancing guidelines and other health requirements. Kemp announced Monday an easing of restrictions on some currently closed businesses starting at the end of this week.

But in other states, like Florida, non-essential businesses have been required to shut their doors.

The partnership with DSI Systems to offer AT&T services to Nationwide members began last year under a different name. The “essential” nature of the offer appears to be new.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contacted Nationwide and DSI Systems, but representatives for each company declined to speak on the record about the program, including about how many companies took advantage of the sales offer. DSI Systems did acknowledge it was discontinuing the AT&T Essentials program after the AJC began asking questions.

Such pitches may be a symptom of the increasing desperation of the retail sector the economic shutdown creeps through its second month.

“The longer that we are closed and can’t put these business back to work with their employees and having cash coming in the door and delivering paychecks, that’s going to have a continuing drag on our economy,” National Retail Federation CEO Matthew Shay told FOX News last week.

Shay, who is an advisor to President Trump on reopening the country, said he has recommended “a balanced approach” that focuses on public safety first. But he said the continued closure of retail businesses is devastating.

“The retail industry employs more than 50 million workers across the country,” he said. “That’s a huge piece of our GDP. We’ve got to put America back to work soon.”