Retail Industry Continues Conference, Tries to Push Americans Back to Normalcy


Visitors enter the site of the NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show, held in New York, the United States, on January 12, 2020.

Wang Yin | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

“The Big Show will continue,” National Retail Federation President Matt Shay said Monday.

And on Friday, even if more speakers and attendees pull out of the conference, that remains the business group’s plan.

The National Retail Federation will kick off its annual rally in New York this weekend. It’s one of many annual conferences and trade shows that kick off a new year every January. But with omicron pushing Covid cases to new heights, conference planning has become complex and has prompted industries to make tough calls.

The JP Morgan Healthcare Conference – which attracts healthcare professionals, big pharma and healthcare start-ups – has decided to hold its annual event virtually this week. CES 2022, a trade show hosted by the Consumer Technology Association, held its event the previous week, but with smaller crowds. And the film industry has announced that it will continue with plans to hold the Berlin International Film Festival in person in February, while the Sundance Film Festival, scheduled for later this month, has gone virtual.

The decisions, in some cases, are symbolic and reflect business challenges as companies try to nudge consumers towards more normality. Grocers and pharmacies kept their doors open and stores kept staff during previous waves of the pandemic. Cinemas are trying to woo audiences as some people have become nervous about sitting next to strangers.

“As we move from pandemic to endemic, this year’s convention is a step forward in this new environment,” the NRF said in a statement Friday. “No doubt it will be a bit messy, but it’s a step forward.”

There will be fewer opportunities for people to take off their masks, drink and socialize like at conferences in the past. The NRF recently decided to postpone two of its major events – an awards gala and a more intimate dinner hosted by the NRF Foundation – until mid-April. The foundation sent personal notes to CEOs and awardees on Jan. 6, announcing the change. It has also indefinitely postponed a student program that coincides with the Big Show and typically draws around 800 college-age attendees for education and networking.

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The NRF has announced enhanced security measures. As well as requiring masks and proof of vaccination, he plans to distribute N95 masks and home Covid test kits.

Similarly, the Berlin Film Festival said its event would have tighter restrictions and no parties.

Declining attendance

The United States has reported nearly 800,000 cases a day on average over the past week, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, more than three times the level seen during the previous record high last winter. While omicron cases may be milder than previous strains of the virus, hospitalizations are also increasing, particularly in the past two weeks.

Against this backdrop, expected attendance at the NRF’s Big Show has dwindled. NRF’s Shay said in a LinkedIn post on Monday that the show would go on. He said the conference was expected to attract up to 20,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors. About 40,000 people attended the Big Show in 2019.

Two days later, however, an NRF spokesperson said there were 15,000 confirmed attendees.

Almost every passing day has brought changes to the conference program. Jessica Alba’s Honest Company confirmed last Friday that the company’s founder and CEO had retired from the line. Saks chief executive Marc Metrick backtracked earlier this week. Both were guest speakers for the event’s main stage.

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Target said Friday that CEO Brian Cornell still plans to attend the event. He is to deliver a keynote address and receive the Business Group’s “Visionary” award. However, the company said it has reduced travel for other employees who plan to go and is looking for ways to participate virtually.

A session with Tapestry, the parent company of Coach and Kate Spade, is no longer on the three-day agenda. In the meantime, the CEOs of Old Navy, Stitch Fix, Lowe’s and Nordstrom have opted out of the conference and will instead hold their sessions virtually.

Executives from Macy’s, WW International (formerly Weight Watchers International), Victoria’s Secret, Authentic Brands Group and Coresight Research are expected in person.

So far, the NRF has not offered a virtual option for attendees or for speakers who are not ready to be on the main stage at the Javits Center.

We believe now is the right time to get back together in some way. Now is the time to start normalizing.

Stephanie Martz

General Counsel, National Retail Federation

In a January 6 tweet, Future Commerce co-founder Phillip Jackson said that “NRF’s The Big Show will be more like The No Show.”

Since omicron is highly contagious, there is concern that an event that attracts thousands of attendees could become a mass-market event. Nearly 70 attendees, including some Samsung executives, tested positive for coronavirus after CES was held last week in Las Vegas, according to a Reuters report. It is unclear whether these attendees contracted Covid at the tech show or at offsite events, such as a dinner at a restaurant.

The NRF’s Big Show site, the Javits Center, is already believed to be the source of the first known case of omicron spreading in the United States, after clusters of cases were detected among the estimated 53,000 people gathered for a lively conference in November. .

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‘Open for business’

The NRF is continuing the conference, as many retail workers earning minimum wage — or near it — show up every day to work in stores and warehouses. Many senior executives and corporate employees in the industry, on the other hand, have been able to work from the comfort and safety of their homes.

“The thing is, it’s really, really important for all of us to remember that our frontline people have been working all this time and we’ve asked them to come to work and deal with customers,” said Stephanie Martz, the executive director and general counsel of NRF, in an interview on January 5.

She said vaccines, masks and other safety measures have been a game-changer, both for the conference and for business operations in general.

“Individual businesses make the decisions that they are going to make for themselves and we certainly don’t blame them if we have people stepping down, but we believe that as a trade association representing retailers we should take advantage of the fact that we are able to say that we believe the economy can and should be open for business,” she said.

“We think now is the time to get back together in some way,” Martz added. “Now is the time to start normalizing.”

NRF’s Shay echoed the importance of keeping businesses going, despite the pandemic.

“We are encouraged by Mayor Eric Adams’ stated desire to keep New York City open,” Shay said in his LinkedIn post. “The overwhelming sentiment from our members, exhibitors, retailers, partners and attendees is that we should move forward with the show. … This year’s show is a step forward, and we believe it is necessary and meaningful.”



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