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...

"Retailers are drowning in a sea of information," declared Gil Harrison, chairman of Financo, during the financial forecast. "It’s not yielding better results. It really deprives them of releasing creativity into the organization. People have to be allowed to do their own thing."

The need for creativity and the short-term (some would say short-sighted) demands of Wall Street stifling newness were major themes echoed at the conference. According to Angela Selden, managing partner at Accenture, retailers have to shift priorities, from expansion, to rethinking strategy and encouraging innovation.

Big news always seems to break during convention week. This time, Kmart announced 326 more store closings and 37,000 job cuts, Simon Properties stepped up its bid to take over Taubman Centers, and Wal-Mart disclosed its interest in buying the Safeway grocery business in the U.K. — yet another overseas acquisition.

The announcements fueled speculation that consolidations will accelerate, and that generally, retailers are in for another tough year, though speakers at the NRF projected an improving U.S. economy, primarily in the second half. But it’s a schizophrenic economy: Consumer spending is holding up, and there’s declining consumer debt due to refinancing, and possibly increased spending on apparel after a few seasons of holding back and more spending on cars and homes. On the downside, the labor markets are weak and consumers are tense.

Also, with some time since Christmas to reevaluate store results, several analysts and economists said the holiday season wasn’t as bad as originally thought in terms of margins and inventories, though sales were admittedly disappointing.

But it’s time for retailers to "Go to the edge and find out what’s so alluring," said Wacker. Even venture further, to the "fringe." It’s a place that’s scary, messy and hard to deal with, but one populated by people planting the seeds of new trends. From there, promising trends are snapped up by hip, trendy entrepreneurs in the "realm of the cool." Then marketers make a larger market for the growing trend. As an example, Wacker cited Nike’s growth from a company that provided shoes for world-class distance runners to an industry giant making sneakers for almost any conceivable purpose, like middle-aged men mowing the lawn.
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