NEW YORK — The National Retail Federation, under new management and in the midst of consolidation, ended its 83rd annual convention here this week with retailers preoccupied by the Los Angeles earthquake and a major freeze across much of the nation that iced sales.
Thousands of delegates and exhibitors shivered through the bitter cold to the Hilton and Sheraton Hotels for seminars, luncheons and a high tech expo. They were eager to learn about TV shopping, the future for selling apparel and how to survive the tough economy, and they were repeatedly pressed by featured speakers to put more theater in their stores.
They had a fairly good Christmas selling season and a decent first two weeks in January, but executives lamented that sales had fallen off because of the Arctic weather that enveloped the Midwest and the East this week. They were also deeply concerned about employees and business conditions in Los Angeles, after last Monday’s earthquake. By Wednesday, the mood was more positive, with executives predicting a recovery beginning in the spring. Demand for replacing lost items, including apparel, and disposable dollars, will grow, they said.
The convention was a crucial test for the new management of NRF, led by Tracy Mullin, president, who took the reins from Jack Schultz after he abruptly resigned last April, during an upheaval in the organization. It’s now trying to polish its image and portray a united front and mission, and it has hired a public relations firm, Fleishman Hillard, to help.
The NRF is still consolidating. The New York office, at 100 West 31st St., will close at the end of February. Some office space is being sought for the remaining New York staff of five, including Joseph Siegel, vice president of merchandising, and sales staff for Stores Magazine, the NRF publication.
According to Mullin, Washington will also be consolidated to one office from two. The entire operation will consist of 55 workers. It was almost double that.
“We’ll have half the staff doing twice as much,” Mullin said.
A big fear among small retailers is that the NRF will become strictly a Washington lobby organization, fighting trade barriers and rising health care costs, while downplaying its retail services function, which smaller retailers use more than big ones.
Mullin denied that, saying retail services are being expanded. She cited an upcoming “information resource center” with an 800 number for members seeking to find out about new technologies, business trends and other concerns. She also said NRF is planning its first interactive shopping conference, slated here April 5.
By some measures, the convention was a success. It drew a big crowd — roughly 15,000 — with some big names in retailing on various panels. On the other hand, there were no dramatic news-breaking sessions and there were some notable no-shows, including David Glass, chief executive officer of Wal-Mart. Late arrivals included Joseph E. Antonini, Kmart chairman, and Bernard F. Brennan, Montgomery Ward chairman, who were there on Wednesday, the last day of the convention, and were absent for the Monday morning press briefing. Brennan succeeded Antonini as NRF chairman.
At the convention, there was consensus that the apparel business is in the trash can but little agreement on when it might improve. Antonini said apparel rides three-year cycles and is currently in the third year of a down cycle. He said it could pick up this year.
However, Carol Farmer, a forecaster, said apparel has been depressed for five years, and 1994 won’t mark a pickup. It’s more than just bad fashion that’s keeping consumers away. They’re just not interested anymore, she said.
There were some provocative sessions, including one on the future of retailing. David A. Cole, chairman of Kurt Salmon Associates, predicted that by 2010, non-store retailing, which includes catalog and TV shopping, will account for 55 percent of general merchandise, apparel and furniture (GAF) sales, from 15 percent in 1992.
He said “the categorization of retailing will disappear,” meaning that it will be impossible to label companies as discounters, departmemt stores or mass merchants, as pricing and merchandising formats get shared.
He said Federal Express, UPS and other third-party distributors will increasingly carry the goods to homes. As much as 60 percent of apparel sales will go straight from producers to households, with no stopovers in warehouses. He also projected that companies will develop automatic replenishment systems that feed right into consumers’ homes, mainly for basics such as underwear, shirts and toiletries.
The store of the future, he said, will have less stock, mostly just for display, and that in a new form of interaction, consumers will design their own products in the store. That’s a “virtual reality” store, where shoppers might find trousers
they like, but be able to order the item to specification, with the color they prefer, or make choices about cuffs and pleats.
Stephanie Shern, partner and national director of retail/wholesale services at Ernst & Young, said her firm surveyed 237 ceo’s from large retailers about global growth. Due to limited growth opportunities in the U.S., and growing disposable income overseas, international revenues will in 10 years generate 30 percent of their sales, from a current 11 percent.
“There are real opportunities for American department stores to go abroad. Consumers want to see American designers,” Shern said.
One international retailer, attending his first NRF convention, said for all the talk at the show about globalization of retailing, there seemed to be little input from foreign retailers.
Roberto Dominici, managing director for Joyce Boutique Holdings, the Hong Kong-based high-end specialty boutiques in Southeast Asia, said, “It’s an interesting show, but it’s very American and not international enough. There should be a forum for an exchange of ideas among foreign retailers. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear how German or Chinese retailers are meeting the challenges of the Nineties?”
Walter Levy, chairman of Levy & Kerson Associates, slammed retailers for “a poor job of editing the clutter, redundancy of offerings, struggling to forge identities, and engaging in high-low pricing and buy-one-get-one-free pricing games,” which undermine credibility.
“Product differentiation is the key to the Nineties,” he said, adding that Warner Bros. stores don’t have to cut price because “the merchandise is clearly distinctive from other stores.”
He said, however, that doesn’t mean it won’t get tired. He urged putting theater back into retailing, and noted that Disney theme parks do $400 million at retail.
He also sees “a casualization,” with relaxed standards and dress codes in the workplace, which is why companies such as Timberland, The Gap, and J. Crew have grown.
Levy, who had conducted a TV shopping survey, said 37 percent of those who made apparel purchases were large sizes, and 15 percent of cable subscribers shopped via TV.
One of the hottest sessions, “Is Home Shopping the $64,000 Question?” featured Isaac Lagnado, principal of Tactical Retail Solutions, saying home shoppers were long thought to be frumpy, middle-aged housewives with modest incomes, but they are now core department store customers — over 35, with incomes of at least $45,000.
–with contributions from SHARON EDELSON