With the fallout of the subprime mortgage crisis wreaking havoc on financial markets and consumers pinched by rising inflation, retailers said they've yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Most, in fact, predicted long struggles and great change — including further consolidation and failures — before the situation improves.
"This is as tough as I've known it," said Sir Philip Green, the owner of Britain's Arcadia group, who noted sales in April have been worse than expected. "It's ugly. I can't say when it will improve."
Myron "Mike" Ullman 3rd, chairman and chief executive officer of J.C. Penny Co. Inc., echoed that assessment.
"I'm not optimistic that it will improve anytime soon," he said. "People haven't seen the bottom. I think it's not going to get better this year. The customer is very concerned about their net worth. These conditions are not good for anybody."
In a keynote address at the three-day convention, Jose-Luis Duran, Carrefour ceo, said: "We are facing the most significant challenges of a generation. This is a tough environment. Never before has the industry faced so many challenges at the same time. There is no time for business as usual."
Despite the grim mood, retailers from around the world who attended the second annual congress said the tough environment would create opportunities for savvy executives, from stealing market share from weaker competitors at home to expanding internationally into hot markets like China and India.
"We are blessed and cursed to live in interesting times," said Paul Charron, former chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne Inc. "Today, there is downright pessimism and even fear. It is a stretch to think that American consumers will lead us back to some sort of normalcy by increasing spending at retail."
Charron added: "There will be notable losers — retailers that have lost their way. There is no place to hide today. We are in for rough weather ahead."