Retail business presses forward with convention, tries to nudge normalcy

Visitors enter the venue for the NRF 2020 Vision: Retail’s Big Show held in New York, USA on January 12, 2020.

Wang Ying | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

“The big show will go on,” Matt Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, said Monday.

And on Friday, even as more speakers and attendees leave the conference, that remains the trade group’s plan.

The National Retail Federation will open its annual meeting in New York City this weekend. It is one of many annual conferences and fairs that ring in a new year in January each year. But with omicron Pushing Covid cases to new heights, conference planning has become complex and caused the industry to make tough decisions.

The JP Morgan Healthcare Conference – which attracts medical professionals, big pharma and healthcare startups – decided to hold its annual event virtually this week. CES 2022, a trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association, continued with his event the previous week, albeit with smaller crowds. And the film industry said it is moving forward with plans to host the Berlin International Film Festival in person in February, while the Sundance Film Festival scheduled for later this month will be held virtually.

The decisions are symbolic in some cases, reflecting the challenges businesses face as companies try to push consumers toward more normalcy. Grocery stores and drugstores have kept their doors open and stores staffed during previous waves of the pandemic. Cinemas are trying win back audience, as some people have become shy about sitting next to strangers.

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

There will be fewer opportunities for people to take their masks off, drink and socialize like there have been at conferences in the past. NRF recently decided to postpone two of its most important events — an awards gala and a more intimate dinner hosted by the NRF Foundation — to mid-April. The foundation sent personal communications to CEOs and honorees on Jan. 6 announcing the change. It has also indefinitely postponed a student program to coincide with the Big Show, which typically draws about 800 college-age attendees for education and networking.

NRF has announced increased security measures. In addition to requiring masks and vaccination certificates, there are plans to distribute N95 masks and Covid test kits to take home.

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

Declining visitor numbers

The U.S. has been reporting an average of nearly 800,000 cases a day for the past week, more than triple the previous record set last winter, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. While cases of Omicron may be milder than previous strains of the virus, hospitalizations are also increasing, particularly in the last two weeks.

With this in mind, expected attendance at NRF’s Big Show has declined. Shay from NRF said Monday in a post on LinkedIn that the show will go on. He said the conference is expected to attract up to 20,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors. Around 40,000 people attended the Big Show in 2019.

Two days later, however, an NRF spokesman said there had been 15,000 confirmed participants.

Almost every day brought changes to the conference schedule. Jessica Albas Honest company confirmed last Friday that the company’s founder and CEO has stepped down from the lineup. Saks chief executive Marc Metrick resigned earlier this week. Both were keynote speakers at the event on the main stage.

aim said Friday that CEO Brian Cornell still plans to attend the event. He is scheduled to give a keynote and accept the trade group’s “Visionary” award. However, the company said it has cut travel for other employees planning to leave and is looking at opportunities to attend virtually.

A session with tapestry, Coach and Kate Spade’s parent company, is no longer on the three-day agenda. Meanwhile CEOs out Old Navy, stitch fix, lowes and north current have decided not to travel to the conference and will instead hold their sessions virtually.

executives out Macy’s, WW International (formerly Weight Watchers International), Victoria’s Secret, Authentic Brands Group and Coresight Research are expected to be present in person.

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

We believe that now is an appropriate time to get back together in some way. This is a time to start normalizing.

Stephanie Martz

General Counsel, National Retail Federation

In a Jan. 6 tweet, Future Commerce co-founder Phillip Jackson said, “NRF’s The Big Show is going to be more like The No Show.”

Because omicron is highly contagious, there are fears that an event that draws thousands of attendees could turn into a super-spreader event. Nearly 70 attendees, including some Samsung executives, tested positive for coronavirus after CES took place in Las Vegas last week. according to a Reuters report. It is not clear whether these attendees contracted Covid during the tech show or at external events such as a dinner at a restaurant.

The location of NRF’s big show, the Javits Center, is already believed to be the source of the first known case of omicron spread in the US, after clusters of cases were discovered among the roughly 53,000 people who gathered there for an anime conference in November.

‘Open for business’

The NRF is driving the conference forward as many retail workers earning minimum wage — or close to it — work in stores and warehouses every day. On the other hand, many of the industry’s top executives and corporate employees have been able to work from the comfort and security of their homes.

“The fact is, it’s really, really important for us to remember that our frontline retail associates have been working all the time and we’ve asked them to come into work and engage with customers,” said Stephanie Martz, the Chief Administrative Officer and General Counsel of NRF, in an interview on January 5.

She said vaccines, masks and other safety precautions have changed the game, both for the conference and for business operations in general.

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

“We believe now is an appropriate time to get back together in some way,” Martz added. “This is a time to start normalizing.”

NRF’s Shay stressed the importance of keeping businesses running 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 opinion of our members, exhibitors, retailers, partners and visitors is that we should move forward with the show. … This year’s show is a step forward and we believe it is necessary and worthwhile.”