Retailers Gather at World Retail Congress in Barcelona

All the world’s a stage, but few American retailers chose to be in the audience at the second annual World Retail Congress in Barcelona last month. Among the 1,100 delegates from around the world, only some 80 held U.S. passports and only about one-third of them could be classified as retail executives.

Nevertheless, American retailers made their mark. Myron “Mike” Ullman, chairman and CEO of J.C. Penney, took home the prize as the Outstanding Leader of the Year. Penney as a company won as the marketer of the year for its “Every Day Matters” campaign, while REI received top recognition as the employer of the year.

In remarks during formal and informal parts of the WRC, U.S. retailers expressed ambivalence about global development. Answering a question from Chain Store Age about the company’s international plans, Ullman said Penney’s “opportunities lie in suburbia” rather than on foreign soil. During a plenary session with Sir Philip Green of the Arcadia Group and Bhs, Millard “Mickey” Drexler, chairman and CEO of J. Crew, said only through the Internet would his company trade internationally. Drexler said to his knowledge the return on investment from global operations was minimal for most apparel retailers and could not offset the “distraction” it caused to domestic operations.

Green, on the other hand, said he would build his Topshop chain into a global business. The first U.S. Topshop is slated to open Oct. 10 in Manhattan. Green said that one key tactic to keep traffic coming into Topshop is to introduce into the mix 150 new items every 12 days.

Also making news at the WRC:

Carrefour has decided to brand its small 3,000-sq.-ft. stores with its corporate name, reversing a longstanding policy of not placing the Carrefour name on anything less than 8,000 sq. ft.

Paul Charron, chairman emeritus of Liz Claiborne, said it was a “pipe dream” to believe there would be an economic rebound in the second half of this year. He cautioned that losers among retailers would be those that were “undifferentiated” and “unimaginative.”

Gilbert Harrison, chairman of Financo, an investment banking firm, said we were in a “media recession,” that deals weren’t stopping but were slowing and changing in scope.

Drexler said that his new concept, Madewell, is expected to lose $10 million a year for the first two years as the company evaluates its potential.

Sephora has changed its training program based on its partnership with Penney. Sephora had been training new staffers for 21 days. By taking advantage of training technology, Penney has been able to train personnel in just nine days, achieving higher customer-service scores than Sephora. Penney has 71 Sephora departments already open since the department was introduced in 2006. After shoes, it’s the most cross-shopped department in the store, said Ullman, who said Sephora does the buying and runs the Web site while Penney does the training and staffing. Penney gets a commission for Web sales generated through Penney’s link to Sephora’s Internet site.

Sales of $10 billion are expected within five to seven years for Wal-Mart and its Indian partner Bharti, according to Bharti managing director Rajan Bharti Mittal.