NRF’s Big Show: What to Expect

For the upcoming annual NRF Big Show — the world’s largest retail industry gathering — look for a “normalization” in the size of the crowds and a rich schedule of presentations by industry leaders.

“It’s safe to say that we will exceed 35,000 attendees. That’s a substantial improvement over last year when omicron was widespread and we had substantial reductions in the numbers,” said Matthew Shay, the president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation.

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With the number of exhibitors, “It will be a record year,” Shay said. “We’ve got more than 1,000 on the show floor. In 2020, before the pandemic, there were 850 and that was the high-water mark. It’s going to be exciting this year, to have that kind of energy again. Thousands and thousands of people are coming back.”

Like other recent trade shows as well as sports events held around the country recently, there won’t be any requirement to wear masks or show vaccine verifications at the NRF Big Show, themed “Breakthrough.” It starts with an opening party Saturday, a NRF Foundation Honors dinner raising funds for scholarships, and continues with the conference and expo Sunday through Tuesday at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side.

While the level of participation returns to normal, the amount of uncertainty pervading the industry is anything but. It’s a big guessing game over the continued impact of inflation, how far the Fed goes with rate hikes, shrinking consumer confidence, COVID-19, stock market gyrations and, if a recession hits, how deep will it be. All of that adds complexities into the process of merchandise planning and staffing for the seasons ahead. There’s also been a string of preliminary reports about how the holiday season transpired, from Macy’s, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and other companies, which were decidedly mixed. When taken as a whole, business wasn’t as good as had been expected earlier in the year, feeding into uncertainties.

“Retailers are aware of the fact there are real challenges impacting American families and workers,” said Shay. “Finding ways to combat inflation by taking costs and friction out of the supply chain continues to be at the top of the list of concerns. Retailers have done some work on that already.

“As we have worked our way through the last three years of the pandemic, we have seen historic levels of fiscal and monetary support for our economy to recover, and now they are resulting in substantial increases in inflation that is unfamiliar in recent history. The uncertainty relates to how this resolves itself. The challenges we see from inflation are not related to supply chains. It’s been all about ‘demand shock’ and too much stimulus from policy makers and the Fed. Because of high inflation, and what the Federal Reserve is doing, retailers must continue to find ways to deliver value.

“The uncertainty also relates to how we restore balance to the labor market, which seems to be persistently resistant to coming back into line,” Shay added. “Normally with inflation this high, we see high levels of unemployment; instead it’s almost at the lowest point in history. You would expect in an environment of elevated inflation, there would be layoffs and cutbacks, and a higher unemployment rate. The retail industry is still missing about 1 million jobs that are unfilled, but retailers are not the only employers facing challenges. We have a very tight labor market,” in the U.S.

When it comes to rising crime, including organized retail crime or incidents of brazen ransacking, “all of the solutions are not going to be found at the national level and not going to be generated by the Congress,” said Shay. “Solutions have to be found at the state and local level.” This is a problem with wider, national implications, beyond retail, Shay said, and “symptomatic of greater challenges we are facing in areas of law enforcement, public safety and the prosecution of local crimes.”

Retailers are also troubled over tariffs. The NRF is lobbying to repeal tariffs on consumer goods imported from China. “When it comes to tariffs you are not hurting the Chinese. You are hurting American consumers paying the tax,” said Shay.

Other NRF lobbying efforts involve reducing credit card fees, privacy, ensuring the authenticity of goods sold online and supporting Dreamers.

The NRF event attracts an international audience of retailers, vendors, tech firms, real estate executives, consultants and industry analysts seeking new ideas and solutions, and anxious to network. Several top retailers are scheduled to speak either solo, on panels or in Q&A format. Among them are Walmart’s John Furner, Macy’s Jeff Gennette, Saks Off 5th’s Paige Thomas, Nordstrom’s Pete Nordstrom, Target’s Brian Cornell, Harrods’ Michael Ward, Neiman Marcus Group’s Geoffroy Van Raemdonck; LVMH’s Anish Melwani, and Express’ Tim Baxter. Lowe’s Marvin Ellison will receive the “Visionary” Award from the NRF.

“We will have 350 speakers in 175 sessions,” said Shay. “We continue to emphasize speakers truly representative of the industry. Forty-five percent on our main and feature stages are women, and almost 25 percent of those that will be appearing on the main and feature stages are racially diverse. This is a big, broad, diverse industry.”

On the expo floor, “You will see a wide range of solution providers in the tech space, in inventory management, supply chain, fulfillment, delivery and customer engagement and acquisitions. It’s a wide and diverse set of exhibitors,” observed Shay.

“We do have an innovation lab and a start-up zone — specific areas focused on new kinds of innovation and those that are truly start-ups, in such areas as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, machine learning and robotics,” Shay said. “There is a pretty rigorous process to qualify to be in these particular areas. They’re companies that are authentic drivers of transformation.”

Asked what the mood will be like for the convention, Shay replied: “If you take the longer view of the last several years, there is enormous optimism. Retailers succeeded in the face of major challenges throughout the pandemic, dealing with health, supply chain and economic issues that placed enormous stress on retailers, but they continued to improve service and deliver to customers,” with desirable products and experiences, he said.

But that optimism over the long haul, Shay acknowledged, is “tempered by the recognition that for many families, the economic environment is quite challenging.”

There’s been some recent news about layoffs but largely confined to the technology and finance sectors. It hasn’t happened in the retail, hospitality, logistics, travel, transportation and consumer goods sectors, Shay noted. “Technology and finance may have overextended. There are many companies that did grow too quickly.”

In a national workforce containing approximately 160 million employees, about 50,000 job layoffs have been announced recently, Shay noted. While that’s a small percentage of the workforce, “I don’t want to minimize the impact on those affected,” Shay said.

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