In better spirits than recent years, tens of thousands of retailers, tech firms, vendors, industry analysts and consultants will descend on New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for the annual NRF 2019: Retail’s Big Show, this Sunday through Tuesday.
As holiday retail sales results trickle in, somewhat under expectations in certain cases but still positive for the most part, the mood for the convention is bright. The economy is strong. Unemployment is low. Consumer confidence is holding up and retailers are adapting to changing shopping patterns with investments in technology and innovations.
What’s in question is fourth-quarter profitability. There’s been heavy promoting to rev-up revenues and steep costs associated with fulfilling and shipping online orders, and there’s uncertainty over whether consumers will tighten up on spending, amid the nation’s political divisiveness, the protracted government shutdown, stock market gyrations, and threat of tariffs and another recession.
“Consumers remain very confident. Interest rates are incredibly low. Wages are growing. Unemployment is strong. Our view is let’s not murder this economic expansion by doing something stupid,” Matt Shay, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, told WWD.
“A trade war doesn’t make sense. Closing the border doesn’t make sense. There a number of things that have the potential to have a negative impact on the economy,” said Shay.
“Given the strength of the consumer and consumer confidence and the kind of investment retailers are making in enhancing the shopping experience, we are now very far removed from where the industry was two years ago when people were talking about a retail apocalypse or ice age. Retailers are using stores as fulfillment centers, establishing all kinds of new partnerships, and plenty of positive things are being done on infrastructures and workforce development.”
With the stock market, “From our perspective, we recognize in relative terms the stock market impacts not a large number of Americans directly,” Shay said.
Asked what would be the NRF’s key lobbying agenda, Shay replied, “In the coming year, our priority would be, in a general sense, to (help) avoid any self-inflicted wounds,” such as a trade war or the government shutdown continuing far into the future.
With unemployment under 4 percent, many companies are finding it tough to fill all of their job vacancies. According to Bureau of Labor statistics, the U.S. has 7. 1 million unfilled jobs and 5.95 million unemployed Americans.
“It’s a challenge that we are facing as an economy,” said Shay. “There’s been a lot of conversation over the last year about the mismatch in many ways between the jobs that exist and the skills of people looking for jobs. For the last eight months, for the first time, the number of unfilled jobs exceeded the number of unemployed Americans. There is a gap there and that has an impact on our economy broadly. The retail industry has been out in front on this issue, with the work we are doing at the NRF Foundation in creating credentials” through supporting training programs.
In retail, Shay added, “If you look at job numbers, the workforce participation rate actually increased.”
Retail is considered the largest private-sector employer in the U.S. The sector had 16.45 million employees in the U.S. last year, slightly more than the 16.37 million in 2017.
The NRF convention, Shay said, “continues to grow and not only evolve. We think it’s improving.” We have more than 500 speakers, 200 sessions and hundreds of hours of content.”
The show, which occupies the entire Javits Center, drew 36,500 industry professionals last year while 37,000 are expected this year. There are 517 speakers lined up, compared to 301 last year, and 44 percent of them are female, versus 34 percent last year. Also, the number of exhibitors is up to 792 versus 719 last year. The “Big Show” is considered the largest retail industry event in North America and among the world’s top three. Shay also noted that the trade show has a $45 million impact on the city and its hotels, restaurants.
The convention’s increased participation can be read two ways — that the industry is healthy, or that in times of uncertainty, business people want answers and want to network in the comfort of others sharing the experience.
Among the ceo’s that will speak: Jeff Gennette from Macy’s Inc., Brian Cornell from Target Corp., Marvin Ellison from Lowe’s Cos. Inc., Ed Stack of Dick’s Sporting Goods Inc. and Rodney McMullen from Kroger.
The “Innovation Lab” exhibit has been expanded and will spotlight drones, wearable technologies, augmented and virtual reality, robotics and other concepts.
Among the additions to the show this year is the “Startup Zone,” which will display start-ups and emerging tech tools, and a web-based “match-making” service to help put retailers in touch with the kind of vendors and solution providers they are looking for. The VIBE Hosted Buyer Program facilitates meetings based on a user profile that attendees fill out which matches them with exhibitors who specialize in producing solutions and services to meet their specific requirements. These meetings take place on the Expo floor.
The show’s programming reflects a greater effort to showcase women and minorities in leadership roles. As examples, there are sessions on the impact of women on the industry, how female leaders succeed in male-dominated industries, and women who disrupt. As Shay said, “This year is exceptional in terms of the number of female leaders we have speaking about the opportunities there are out there to build relationships and achievements.”