NEW YORK — With the economic wind at their backs, merchants and store operators as well as those consultants, analysts, suppliers and others who feed off the retail industry — at least 35,000 in all — will descend on the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center here beginning Sunday for the annual National Retail Federation convention.
It’s called “The Big Show” and it’s the largest retail industry gathering of the year, drawing an international crowd. This time around, the convention will have a markedly different tone from those of recent years when store closings, bankruptcies and the threat of e-commerce to bricks-and-mortar players dominated the conversation and brought down the mood. This year the main topics will be how to sustain the sales gains most retailers have experienced since last November; the revised tax code and the benefits it brings, and how to innovate and embrace emerging technologies and alter the retail experience to catch up to fast-changing consumer shopping trends.
“There’s a lot of momentum coming off the holiday season with its ‘hockey stick’ conclusion to the year in terms of sales and with the strengthening consumer economy and tax reform which will provide more money for spending and will reduce the corporate tax burden,” said Matthew Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation on Tuesday.
During holiday 2017, “certainly there were promotions,” Shay said. “But everything we are hearing thus far is that it was a very good season for retailers.”
In some cases retailers were surprised by the strong rate of purchasing by consumers, Shay added. “Combine that with the reduced corporate tax rate and lower tax burden on middle-class Americans and that makes for a nice shot in the arm for many retailers.
“Everyone will be looking at the tax code and the different ways which companies put that to work in support of growing their businesses.”
Depending on the retailer, that could entail providing better wages, increased hiring and investing in marketing, e-commerce, the supply chain or stores, said Shay, rattling off a variety of ways retailers could capitalize on lowered taxes. The corporate rate is being slashed to 21 percent from 35 percent.
For the upcoming Big Show, running Jan. 14 to 16, NRF projects at least 35,000 attendees, which was last year’s attendance. More than 3,500 companies and over 90 different countries will be represented and there will be more than 600 press people and analysts and 300 speakers, according to the NRF.
“A third of the speakers will be talking about innovation and more than a third of our speakers are women,” said Shay. “Our show always has a very diverse population of speakers. It makes sense because it reflects the retail industry. I also think if you look at retail industry, you see a much higher preponderance of females in executive roles,” compared to other industries.
This year’s convention will have an expanded “innovation lab” on the fourth level of the Javits Center, with a heavy emphasis on artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, augmented reality, virtual reality, ways to optimize returns and “lots of different technologies that play into improving the customer experience,” Shay said.
Judging from the agenda, the NRF has lined up a bigger roster of high-profile retailers, either keynoting or participating in panel discussions, among them ceos Marvin Ellison of J.C. Penney, Spencer Fung of Li & Fung, Doug McMillon of Walmart and Karen Katz of Neiman Marcus Group, as well as Terry J. Lundgren of Macy’s, Tommy Hilfiger and Arianna Huffington.
The expo floor has been reorganized so visitors can structure a walk-through based on what’s of most interest to you. There’s a section for point-of-sale technologies, for example, and there’s another section for digital technologies.
“As retailers head into the new year, they want to continue the positive momentum and are looking to see movement on the nation’s infrastructure, fixing the health-care system once and for all,” Shay said.
Among their highest concerns, are “inflationary pressures on wages as employers compete to attract the best,” he added.
The NRF last year projected 3.6 to 4 percent 2017 holiday sales gain for retailers.
“On Friday morning, we will give our final analysis. I think we will be on the high side of the forecast, and potentially top the forecast,” Shay said. “People maybe overestimated the impact of hurricanes in the third quarter.”