By  on January 9, 2012

NEW YORK — In an industry where performance is difficult to predict, retailers want some certainty, even after coming off a dizzying, roller coaster holiday season.

So this week, thousands will be attending the National Retail Federation convention in New York seeking a read into the future to help them plan for it. It’s the biggest retail industry event of the year, where prognosticating and networking abound, and success stories and strategies are conveyed in scores of panels and presentations.

About 24,000 senior executives, buyers and store operators at all levels, as well as suppliers and consultants, are expected — 2,000 more than last year, according to the NRF. The convention, this year themed “Retail’s New Rules” will be held Jan. 15 to 18 at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here.

“It’s challenging out there but the top-line numbers for the holiday season looked very good. There was growth, and that atmosphere for growth is going to carry over into the convention,” Matthew R. Shay, president and chief executive officer of the NRF, said in an interview. “The resilience of our economy is starting to show.”

Shay did express some concern that all the political conversation and rancor that emerges in a presidential election year “might not be uplifting for consumers” and distract from their shopping. “But all things considered, this is a pretty good market relative to some other industries,” said Shay optimistically. “Retailers will approach 2012 with a sense of confidence and maybe a sense of caution recognizing that they are expecting significant economic headwinds. This is a recovery. It’s modest and incremental and it will take a couple of years.”

Asked how the convention’s program differs from last year’s, Shay said, “The big thing you will see is an emphasis throughout on our ‘Retail Means Jobs,’ campaign, which we launched last year. It’s unprecedented in our 100-year history.” Shay said the campaign goes beyond the usual lobbying efforts and also involves a road show with NRF representatives and ceos meeting with business leaders and other retailers around the country to discuss how retail is vital to the overall economy, and legislative and regulatory issues such as corporate tax reform, trade policies and infrastructure investments that could “unshackle” the retail business and fuel job growth. Last year, the NRF commissioned Pricewaterhouse-Coopers LLP to conduct a comprehensive study of the impact of the retail industry on the U.S. economy, which became the backbone for the campaign. Researchers examined the number of stores and jobs around the country; labor income, ranging from employee pay and benefits to pension contributions, and retail’s contribution to gross domestic product. According to Shay, 42 million jobs, or one in four in the U.S., are retail or retail-induced. Moreover, Shay said that the industry has “recovered very well... It’s seen growth in the last 17 consecutive months.”

The convention’s agenda, Shay added, is designed to satisfy deepening curiosities over online and mobile selling formats and social media, sustainability, and the state of the world economy. Among the speakers lined up are Macy’s Inc. chairman, ceo and president Terry J. Lundgren, who will moderate a discussion with former President Bill Clinton. Other ceos on the roster include Angela Ahrendts of Burberry, Stephen I. Sadove of Saks Inc., Brian Devine of Petco, Bonnie Brooks of The Bay, David Jaffe of the Ascena Retail Group, Kip Tindell of The Container Store, Walter Robb of Whole Foods, Danny Meyer of the Union Square Hospitality Group, and Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway. David Lauren of Ralph Lauren Corp. is also among the presenters.

“People continue to be primarily concerned about how to compete and be successful in the current economy,” Shay said. “There is a great deal of interest in the tactics that can be employed, like mobile technologies, tablets, omni-channel retailing, and whether consumers are going to be able to continue to drive the economy forward with consumption. They are also concerned about the South America markets, specifically Brazil, and parts of Asia, specifically China.”

While there’s plenty of room for growth in emerging economies and new retail formats, “It’s pretty clear that the macro-economic conditions are not going to change dramatically in the course of 2012,” Shay said. “We see relatively modest and incremental growth.”

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