WASHINGTON — Times have changed dramatically for Tracy Mullin, who joined the National Retail Merchants Association in 1976 during the Ford administration, when the slogan of the day was “Whip inflation now!”

More than 25 years later, Mullin is president of the National Retail Federation, an organization created by the merger of the NRMA and the American Retail Federation, and now the challenges include whipping deflationary price pressures, weak consumer confidence, a recession and the devastating impact of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Mullin will accept an American Image Award on behalf of the entire retail industry, which has made contributions of tens of millions of dollars, as well as in-kind support, to aid the relief effort in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Companies like Eddie Bauer raised over $300,000 for the American Red Cross through corporate and employee donations, while Federated Department Stores donated $100,000 to the American Red Cross, J.C. Penney donated $700,000 in in-kind and monetary assistance and The Home Depot donated $1 million to The United Way, according to the NRF.

“Retailers did what they have always done: They reached out and helped people in need,” said Mullin. “They’ve been there during floods, hurricanes, horrible fires and personal tragedies.”

However, they have now turned inward to assess the damage wrought on consumer confidence.

“It doesn’t overstate the case to say [the attacks] were devastating,” said Mullin. “We were going into a downturn anyway, and retailers were girding their loins and trying to prepare for a serious economic period. So this was so unexpected and severe.”

The NRF still remains upbeat, however, characterizing the recession as mild, with the economy poised for a U-shaped or gradual recovery path. Mullin said the NRF is forecasting that general merchandise, apparel and furniture and home furnishings (GAF) sales will grow 3.7 percent this year, compared with the 2.4 percent seen in 2001.

Mullin said she won’t give up on an economic stimulus package or a proposed national sales tax holiday, though she acknowledged it will be an “uphill battle.”

“We all believe the economy is not quite on track and needs an additional push,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mullin said she expects to see continuing consolidation in the retail sector.

“That’s the nature of retailing,” she said. “There are very few industries that haven’t suffered some kind of economic change, not just resulting from Sept. 11, but from the changing nature of the entire economy.”

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