Byline: David Moin

NEW YORK — The International Mass Retail Association has a new angle for its annual convention. It’s staging a “business development forum” that plays down product display and buying, and encourages suppliers and stores to hash out major concerns.
The idea behind the forum is to enhance opportunities to discuss “real business issues,” said Denis Lemire, president and chief operating officer of Ames Department Stores Inc., in a statement. He also serves as chairman of the convention planning committee.
“The major difference will be that suppliers no longer have to ship and set up a traditional exhibit booth, saving them all that expense and trouble,” Lemire said in a statement. “They also will not feel an obligation to bring a lot of product, almost all of which the retailers are already quite familiar with. But they will still be able to showcase new items, hand out literature, even run PowerPoint or video presentations.”
The annual convention, May 19-22 at the Wyndham Anatole Hotel in Dallas, will replace traditional product exhibits with 250 meeting spaces — 10 feet square — so suppliers and retailers can discuss “specific business issues, market trends and the potential of growing their businesses together,” according to IMRA. Unlike past conventions, there will be no trade show exhibition hall.
The forum was recommended by the planning committee representing IMRA member retailers and suppliers. It will run from 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. on May 20, and 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on May 21, with half the suppliers conducting meetings on Sunday and half on Monday. Each group will be able to attend a business development luncheon with all retail attendees on the group’s specific forum day. On the other day, they can attend a special supplier educational session.
Fewer suppliers will participate in the forum, compared to previous IMRA product shows, Lemire said.
“Most everyone agrees that the IMRA show’s value is in the meaningful interaction among the mass retail and supplier executives, and to focus on problem solving and relationship building, rather than on the product. The entire convention- planning committee felt that it was time to make some changes to enhance that focus and make the event more valuable.”
Many retail industry trade shows attract middle or lower-level executives and consultants. IMRA is just the opposite. It draws the top ranks, who are less involved in the actual buying of product, which is why product display will be downplayed.
“Because of who this event draws, we are deemphasizing actual selling, but not deemphasizing the business of buying and selling products. We’re focusing more on categories of growth, and consumer trends driving categories,” said Jenny Keehan, IMRA’s senior vice president of marketing.
Of the retail attendees at IMRA’s convention, roughly 30 percent are presidents and chief executives; 30 percent are chief operating officers, chief financial officers and senior marketing officials, and 40 percent are general marketing managers and senior vice presidents of merchandising, she said. “We don’t get any buyers, except for some Dallas companies that might bring some.”
Total attendance, she added, is about 1,200 from about 80 different retail companies and 250 suppliers. While the retail count is expected to be close to last year’s figure, the supplier list has deliberately been reduced from last year’s 329, she said. “We’re trying to reduce the ratio because retailers didn’t have time to see all of the suppliers.”
Keehan also said that the downsizing is not a cost-saving maneuver by IMRA, though, “We are saving the suppliers money because they don’t have to spend [as much] on shipping products, labor and setting up booths and they will still get all the value out of the convention as they have in the past.”
IMRA itself will “hopefully break even or take a little hit,” on the convention, she noted.
Aside from the business forum, the rest of the convention is structured as in the past, with an educational track for financial and information technology executives; the Friday golf tournament; the Saturday night welcome party and Sunday night party and two breakfast sessions specific to merchandising topics.
Keynoters and guest speakers scheduled include John Chambers, ceo of Cisco; Joseph Ettore, IMRA chairman and ceo of Ames Department Stores; Ralph Nader; Alan Keyes, a former Republican presidential candidate; John Menzer, president and ceo, Wal-Mart International; Anders Moberg, group president of international and global sourcing, Home Depot; Don Soderquist, former senior vice chairman, Wal-Mart Stores, and Emmy-award comedian Dana Carvey. Bill Clinton has been invited to speak.

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