NRF’s BIG-gest Show Yet

Expectations are riding high for the upcoming 100th annual NRF Convention & EXPO, produced by The National Retail Federation, Washington, D.C., with various industry experts already predicting it will be the most attended show of 2011. Among the expected hot topics on the agenda: mobile commerce, successful multichannel operations and sustainability. 


The event, known throughout the industry as “Retail’s BIG Show,” is about to set up shop at the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York, Jan. 9-12, 2011. Approximately 18,500 domestic and international attendees, comprised of retail executives, vendors and consultants, are expected to attend the conference to take advantage of a strong educational agenda, as well as to visit 600 vendors on the show’s EXPO floor.


Most of the retailers attending the show will share a common concern: how to gain the insight needed to survive in today’s uncertain economic environment.


“No one expects the retail landscape to return to the happy days of three years ago,” said Jeff Roster, VP of research for Gartner, Stamford, Conn. “Growth is dead; foreclosures will take years to clean up. What’s most important in this environment is to learn how to survive.”


But experts agree that technology is key, not only to surviving in today’s altered landscape, but also to being successful. The good news is retailers are willing to make capital investments in technology, even in this recession.


In fact, global enterprise information technology spending is expected to increase 3% in 2011 — the equivalent of $2.5 trillion, according to Gartner. The caveat is projects must deliver long-term benefits.


“Unlike a couple of years ago when companies pulled back on new projects, retailers are moving ahead on IT endeavors as long as they can prove a business need and determine a good return on investment,” reported Dave Hogan, NRF’s SVP and CIO.


Grabbing the shopper: Shopper engagement is at the top of IT priority lists, and this requires bolstering multi-channel strategies.

“Retailers that are still standing 10 years from now will be the ones that leveraged a successful multichannel operation,” Gartner’s Roster said. “Chains that don’t embrace this strategy are at risk of losing their business.”


Relying on brick-and-mortar, catalogs and e-commerce channels is not enough. The shopper is calling the shots and demanding retailers use new customer-facing applications to connect with him or her and retain loyalty. This is helping to drive chains’ mobile retailing strategies. 


“Mobile will clearly dominate many discussions this year, and chains need to be educated on how it can and will impact their business,” Hogan said.


Whether considering “apps” to be accessed by smartphones or wireless tablets such as iPads, retailers are trying to grasp how mobile retailing can transform their businesses. Besides being a customer engagement tool that will enable chains to “connect” with shoppers both inside and outside of the store’s four walls, mobile retailing will also reshape internal operations from visibility into inventory to collaboration with trading partners and internal electronic communications. 


“Companies such as Retail Pro are already making this concept a reality through its version of an ‘app store,’ where chains can pick and choose functionality and download it directly to internal smart devices,” explained Greg Buzek, founder and president IHL Consulting Group, Franklin, Tenn. “Many companies feature suites where customers and development partners add reports and other functions. This may be a new trend, but we see it continuing.”


NRF is so bullish on the power of mobile that it is devoting six educational sessions to the topic, including a panel discussion, “Mobile Strategy: Will It Ever Learn to Play Nice?” Among the participants are Baron Concors, chief information and digital officer, Pizza Hut; Brian Bradley, executive VP, HSN.com; Cara Kinzey, senior VP IT, The Home Depot; and Michael Sajor, CTO, Ann Taylor.


“These executives will discuss corporate responsibilities regarding connecting to shoppers, securing mobile payments, as well as work that needs to be done to use mobile from a store operations perspective,” Hogan said.


Retailers will also get a view into how consumers use their smart devices to share electronic messages, pictures of merchandise and text messages with friends when making a purchase. These devices are bringing a “social” aspect back to shopping — something that has been lacking for a long time. They are also bringing the power of social media to their mobile devices, and now they are demanding that their favorite retailers do the same.


“The idea of networking and communicating with friends is not a new concept, but social networks have tapped into a human desire to connect with friends and family,” Roster said. “There are incredible amounts of money to be made in this channel, and there is no question retailers need to tap into it and find a way to be part of it.”


Green: While some experts believe “green” issues may be losing a bit of steam, NRF believes sustainability is still an important priority for retailers attending the show. What keeps green front and center is that sustainability encompasses many categories that promise to deliver value to a retail operation.


“Sustainability has different meanings for different companies,” Hogan explained. “Some chains focus on saving energy costs, others focus on packaging. Some look at sustainability from a sourcing perspective, and still others focus on what it means to their corporate social responsibility and human rights standards.”


Regardless of the path, all efforts, green or otherwise, must lead to a real return on investment to remain a priority in the new economy. 


“All companies should be concerned with how to save or make money,” Roster said. “It is all about making hard decisions that will drive business more effectively, not just embracing a warm message. There is too much on the line in this economy not to look at how these ideas impact business going forward.”