In a climate of global economic uncertainty, thousands of retailers, consultants and suppliers — 34,000 in all — will converge on Manhattan’s Javits Center Sunday through Wednesday for the National Retail Federation’s annual convention and expo called “The Big Show.”
It’s the retail industry’s largest gathering of the year, providing panel discussions, presentations, networking opportunities, and a large expo filled with technology, and attracting representatives from international chains to small-town mom and pop stores. While the character of the audience varies greatly, the quest is universal — to find ways to recover consumer dollars being lost to restaurants, theaters and vacation packages, and solutions for making shopping exciting and less of a chore.
It’s become apparent, particularly after the tough 2015 holiday season, that retailers need to change and must catch up to morphing demographics and shopping patterns.
“If you listen to what retailers say about their opportunities and challenges, they talk about the customer experience everyday,” said Matthew Shay, the president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation. “Much of the consumer spending is going into travel, leisure and dining, and in order to compete for those dollars, retailers have got to create great experiences that are just as relevant and exciting.”
Within the industry, Shay said, “There is continuing substantial interest in mobile, monetizing social media and social communications, and finding effective ways to get customers excited. Yes — it’s about product and merchandising. But it’s also about storytelling.”
High up on the shopping lists of the attendees will be technologies that help retailers engage more effectively with consumers, including those that provide delivery and pickup options, like same-day deliveries and order online, pick up in store services.
The Big Show’s exposition floor will occupy 228,000 square feet, up from 220,000 last year. The NRF convention, with all of its presentations and sessions, meetings, exhibits and demonstrations, actually takes over the entire Javits Center, which is 1.1 million square feet. “We are expecting another big turnout,” Shay said. “Last year we had 34,000 attending. This year, we are on track to reach that level, at least.”
There will be 580 exhibitors this year, close to last year’s 590. “But we are sold out — so the companies exhibiting this year bought bigger spaces to occupy the Expo hall,” said a spokeswoman. “Attendees are coming from 80 countries, about the same number as last year.”
“The overall issue for us is job creation and economic growth,” Shay said, discussing NRF priorities. “We really believe the challenges we face would be much more easily solved in an economy that is growing more than the current 2.2 percent GDP.”
Being an presidential election year doesn’t make things any easier. With heightened anxieties over the country’s future, retailers think twice before investing back into their businesses because they’re not sure what’s going to happen next.
Election year politics also means greater difficulty to get legislation, though Shay said the NRF remains undeterred in its lobbying efforts. “We can’t really settle for not much getting done. We still have to make that push.”
Tax reform, including putting sales conducted online and through stores on an even playing field, and regulatory proposals, on overtime, minimum wage and predictive scheduling, top the NRF’s agenda. The regulatory push, in Shay’s view, is poorly timed, occurring when there is anemic job growth and economic activity in the U.S.
“It is a challenging period because of the legislative environment and the election. We want to make sure the candidates understand the issues important to retailers,” Shay said.
The convention is a stage for spotlighting retail technology,and this time around there will be a “launch pad” area for start-ups. While some tech firms that exhibited last year at NRF won’t be back, Shay said. “We have a very loyal group of exhibitors. There’s a lot of competition to get into the show. We keep adding and growing on the exhibit side. We keep selling out.”
Also new to the convention will be a food truck alley, a clubhouse to take a break and recharge mobile devices, retailer-only meet-ups each morning, as well as gift card giveaways, apple cider and free Hershey chocolate.
Awards for leadership and innovation will be given to J.C. Penney Co. executive chairman Myron “Mike” Ullman, Eataly U.S. ceo Nicola Farinetti and Walgreen Co. president Alex Gourlay. Tory Burch and two dozen other industry influencers will be honored at the NRF Foundation dinner.
In addition, NRF chairman Kip Tindell, founder and ceo of The Container Store, will have a fireside chat with former Secretary of State and retired General Colin Powell. Other speakers scheduled: Macy’s Inc. chairman and ceo Terry Lundgren; Ira Kalish, chief global economist at Deloitte Research; Michele Buck, president of Hershey North America; chairman/professor Irad Ben-Gal of Stanford University; trend-spotter and author Marian Salzman, and Scott Hilton, chief revenue officer of Jet.com.