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Industry Gets Set for NRF’s ‘Big Show’

The retail convention — the industry’s largest — will be filled with demos and discussions on the latest technologies from mobile platforms to RFID.

After a tricky Christmas season, the spotlight shifts to retailing again next week when more than 27,000 store executives, suppliers, techies, consultants and prognosticators converge on Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for the National Retail Federation’s annual convention and expo called “Retail’s Big Show.”

The convention — the industry’s largest — will be filled with demos and discussions on the latest technologies from mobile platforms to RFID, and case studies on everything from sustainability to going global and the convergence between brick-and-mortar and online.

With uncertainty the order of the day, retailers crave insights into the future and on best practices to help them plan their buys and orchestrate strategies. With any luck, they’ll get a dose of inspiration from presenters including Terry J. Lundgren, Howard Schultz, Bill Simon, Kip Tindell, Walter Robb and Mindy Grossman, the chief executive officers, respectively, of Macy’s Inc., Starbucks Corp., Wal-Mart U.S., The Container Store, Whole Foods and HSN Inc. Donna Karan, Thomas Belk of Belk Inc. and Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, are also set to speak during the convention, which runs Sunday to Wednesday and is expected to draw a crowd of attendees and exhibitors that’s 10 to 15 percent larger than the 2012 convention.

Aside from all the learning and networking opportunities, the convention helps recharge retailers. Last year, they endured an uneven and often puzzling fall-holiday season impacted by Hurricane Sandy, the presidential election, Washington’s inability to resolve fiscal issues and the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. Europe’s shaky economy also sapped much of the will of consumers to spend. Though people are generally in better financial shape than a couple of years ago, you wouldn’t know it from their tentative spending recently.

The NRF will give its final verdict on the holiday season either during the convention or soon thereafter. For now, the trade organization is sticking to its forecast for a 4 percent gain, which seems optimistic considering how erratic sales and traffic in the malls were until the very last minute. “From the beginning of 2012, we said that for a variety of reasons we thought consumers were going to be conservative and cautious and that there were a lot of variables that would effect the outcome,” Matthew Shay, NRF’s president and ceo, said in an interview Wednesday.

Regarding the outlook for 2013, “If we went over the fiscal cliff we basically would be seeing [retail sales] flat to down for the first six months,” Shay said. “If we got the big solution, we could be up 3 or 4 percent. We really didn’t go over the cliff, but there wasn’t the big solution either.” That leaves the industry “still in that kind of gray area.”

Spending cuts, the debt ceiling, reforming entitlement programs, the corporate tax code, tax loopholes and the government’s budget remain unresolved. “We feel we’re poised to move from a rather modest economy to a stronger and more robust economy if we can begin to address some of the bigger issues that thus far the administration or Congress have not found a way to address,” Shay said. “There are lots of things that we can do that we just haven’t done yet.”

Regarding retailing’s own set of challenges, “They get a lot easier to deal with when the economy is growing at 4, 4.5 or 5 percent, rather than limping along at 1.8 to 2 percent,” Shay said. Unemployment, lingering at 7.8 percent, doesn’t help. “That number is troubling. If you add in discouraged workers and those who have left the workforce, the number is 15 percent,” he added.

“We [the retail industry] feel we are in a good position to grow and so is the rest of the economy, which has still found a way to grow, although very tepidly,” Shay said. “But the uncertainly has not been removed. The whole issue of consumer confidence is related to economic headwinds….For us, the focus is going to be on the positive opportunities that exist. None of the challenges are insurmountable. Most are politically made. The fiscal cliff is a sheer contrivance. We didn’t have to find ourselves in this crisis. This lack of leadership has been frustrating consumers and investors, creating a level of uncertainty.”