Matthew Shay

Against a backdrop of international flare-ups, presidential politics and questions over the longevity of America’s robust economy, thousands of retailers, tech experts, suppliers, consultants and media will converge on Manhattan’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center Jan. 11 to 14 for the National Retail Federation’s Vision 2020 “Big Show” annual convention and trade expo.

It’s the biggest retail industry conclave of the year, with an expected attendance of about 40,000, or roughly 2,000 more than last year’s event. Regarding the number of chief executive officers keynoting or in panel discussions, the level of participation is as wide as it’s ever been.

What retailers need most entering 2020, in the mind of NRF president and ceo Matthew Shay, is “some  predictability about the future and clarity over policies on trade.” With that, retailers can plan and invest in their businesses with confidence, leading to company growth, wage growth and greater consumption, he said. “Those things don’t happen in a climate of uncertainty.”

“We work so hard to communicate to the administration the need to get U.S., Canada, Mexico and China trade agreements done,” Shay said. “Last year, we did get some clarity on the U.S., Canada and Mexico agreement. Hopefully it will be finally wrapped up soon.” That, plus the U.S. and China last month agreeing on a “phase one” trade deal reducing U.S. tariffs while increasing Chinese purchases of American goods and addressing issues over China’s intellectual property practices “are very positive things for the economy,” Shay said.

Both consumers and the economy are in a good place and the industry mood is bright in the aftermath of a healthy holiday season for most retailers. “We feel there’s momentum that will carry [retailers] into 2020.” Still, some forecasts suggest this year won’t be as robust as 2019. “Things could slow down a bit,” Shay said. The NRF will issue its 2020 sales forecast within two months.
Also, questions loom over when the economic expansion will end and to what degree retailers will continue to downsize. “Among the thousands of retail companies out there, there are 15 that account for 75 percent of the recent closures,” Shay said. The issue of store closings is “not systemic. It’s really unique to a pretty small minority of companies” dealing with their own financial or operational issues.
Consumer privacy, data security, consumers embracing channel-agnostic retailing, the rise of women in retail management and sustainability are also important topics to be discussed.
Regarding the presidential election as a distraction to shopping, “The economy will have more of an impact on the election than the election will have on the economy,” Shay said.

The big crowd at NRF’s Big Show  Jason Dixson Photography

At the convention, Shay said 100 countries will be represented, more than 16,000 retailers and 1,000 members of the press will show up, and there will be nearly 1,000 exhibitors. Four-hundred speakers will participate in 200-plus sessions. “We take over the entirety of the convention center,” Shay said. “There’s nothing else anywhere that comes close to this kind of convening of retail leaders.”
NRF has assembled an impressive list of retail ceo’s as keynoters or for panels, including Michelle Gass of Kohl’s; Helena Foulkes of the Hudson’s Bay Co.; Kevin Johnson of Starbucks; Marvin Ellison of Lowes; Corie Barry of Best Buy; John Furner of Walmart U.S.; Neal Montgomery of Crate & Barrel; Mindy Grossman of WW International, and Satya Nadella of Microsoft. Also speaking will be Erik Nordstrom, copresident of Nordstrom Inc.; Paul Ryan, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Gwyneth Paltrow, actress and Goop founder.
One of the big draws is the Innovation Lab. It’s bigger than last year and offers more to learn about artificial intelligence, augmented reality, machine learning, facial recognition, data analytics and robotics. There’s also an expanded “start-up zone” showcasing technologies from new companies.
The expo floor, Shay acknowledged, can be “a bit intimidating” given its expansive terrain of retail technologies and services. But this year “we’re offering a series of curated expo tours based on your area of interest.” The NRF has also evolved its store tour program because of the city’s new developments like Hudson Yards and host of new anchor stores and retail flagships.
“Almost five years ago, there was a question of whether the retail industry would survive,” Shay said. “That is no longer a question.”
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