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Retail industry exhibits vitality as barriers fall

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Anyone questioning the vitality of the retail industry would have had those doubts put to rest if they were present at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show in New York City earlier this month. With some 40,000 attendees — almost half of them retailers, including everyone from small business owners to John Furner, president of Walmart U.S. — and more than 800 exhibitors, the scale of the event was impressive, but the numbers only begin to tell the story.

Unfolding under the rubric NRF 2020, the annual Big Show highlighted new thinking about issues that are transforming retailing — emerging business models, the need to attract top talent, partnerships, and sustainability, among them. Presentations by Furner and a host of other industry experts were supplemented by a show floor where exhibitors demonstrated how cutting-edge technology in such fields as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics is being applied to improve the retail experience. One couldn’t help but come away with a sense of an industry with its eyes fixed firmly on the future.

That impression was reinforced by NRF’s leadership.

“We enter this new decade with great optimism, with great confidence,” said Mike George, incoming NRF chairman and president and chief executive officer of Qurate Retail Inc., whose holdings include QVC, Garnet Hill and Zulily. “We’re clear-eyed about the seismic changes roiling our industry. We’re clear-eyed about the pace of technology change and disruption. …

“So much is changing, and yet amid all this change and challenge, the much anticipated, much hyped retail apocalypse never arrived. It was a no-show.”

While acknowledging the widening divide between retailers who have embraced the need to evolve and those who have adhered to old ways of doing things, George was bullish about what lies ahead.

“It’s fun to see all these amazing, digitally native businesses that have discovered stores and their power to connect with consumers,” he said. “And to see all of these store-based retailers rethinking the full customer journey — the physical journey for sure, but also the virtual journey, with digital and brick-and-mortar coming together. Some of us are even planning to operate at the intersection of social media and retail. The boundaries are fading away, so we are excited about the opportunities in front of us.”

After spending three days at the latest installment of the NRF Big Show, that seemed to sum up the consensus viewpoint.


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