NRF’s ‘Really Big Show:’ Talk of Consolidations And More Discomfort

NEW YORK — After muddling through 2002, retailers have a lot to look forward to in 2003 — most of it not to be welcomed. There will be more...

NEW YORK — After muddling through 2002, retailers have a lot to look forward to in 2003 — most of it not to be welcomed. There will be more deflation, rising unemployment, consolidation, global tensions, inventory excess and product sameness. Wal-Mart’s unending growth is a given, leaving less market share for everyone else except the most nimble.

"If you wake up today and say I have a problem, you are four or five years too late," said Hans-Joachim Korber, chief executive officer of Kaufhof Warenhaus, based in Germany.

Historically, retailing has been "a bellwether and bedrock industry of creativity and innovation. If anything, I think it’s become dysfunctional," said futurist Watts Wacker, chief executive of FirstMatter. His advice to retailers: "Learn to be uncomfortable and expect consumers to be unreasonable."

"The retail box is a sarcophagus," declared John Hockenberry, correspondent for Dateline NBC, in a rather dark depiction of the state of the industry.

These comments sprang out of "super sessions" at the National Retail Federation annual convention at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, Sunday through Wednesday. It was dubbed "the big show," and as Ed Sullivan would have said, it was "a really big show" in terms of attendance, ideas and retail-bashing. There were 12,500 people registered, mostly retailers, along with about 300 exhibitors on the trade show floor. For an industry that’s hurting and under mounting pressure, the convention is the time for self-analysis, though much of the examination is from those not on the front lines, but from the periphery — the consultants, Wall Street analysts and futurists who feed off retailers for their own survival and take a high profile as panelists at the forum.

Then there’s the exhibition floor, where actual business is conducted. It saw steady traffic, but reportedly the technology suppliers weren’t getting the commensurate business. "Merchandise optimization" was a big buzz word, and companies ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue to J.C. Penney use such systems to varying degrees to help schedule markdowns for maximum sales. However, not everybody agrees that more data is what retailers need to climb out of their hole.
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