The National Retail Federation (NRF) is just winding down its 101st "Big Show" in New York as I write this. The focus is pretty timely: it's all about jobs and growth and retail's contribution to each.
According to the NRF, 1 in 5 jobs in America is retail-related. And it projects growth this year of 3.4 percent, to $2.53 trillion. That's better than most estimates for overall growth, and it feels good to speculate about better times ahead.
Former President Bill Clinton spoke Monday to a packed house, relating his ideas about how to raise the standard of living in the rest of the world, and what we can do here to help. "The one sure thing about the future," he said in summation, "is that we're going to have to share it with a lot of people. We can share the prosperity, or we can share the misery. It's up to us."
Based on the participation this year—both in terms of attendees as well as exhibitors—one would never know we are stuck in the economic doldrums.
In looking at both the exhibitors and the attendees, two things stand out very clearly:
There are an extremely large number of retailers attending from other countries, particularly from India and Brazil, as well as Western Europe.
The majority of exhibitors are technology companies.
The first should be no surprise; as emerging nations like Brazil look for answers in retail, there is much to be learned from U.S. retail history. We represent 20 percent of the world's economy with only 4 percent of its population. Let's hope that those countries are also looking to improve on the things we didn't do so well.
But therein lies opportunity for retailers looking for growth ideas domestically. There's nothing like spending some time with folks who see things from a different perspective to give one a new outlook on existing challenges. Finding a partner in one of those growing companies might be just the catalyst some of our domestic retailers need to see things in a new light, while helping the global economy.
The second point above I found somewhat surprising, although I really shouldn't have. The vast majority of exhibitors were selling technology in some form: data collection, data analysis, online connectivity to brick & mortar, mobile-related offerings of all shapes and sizes, and more. All in all it's a mind-boggling array of technology, and more along the lines of what one would expect from CES. There wasn't a can of green beans to be found.
I took three things away from NRF this year:
Retail is truly global, and we have much to learn as well as to teach
The light at the end of the tunnel may be flickering back to life, but we need to make decisions with the long-term in mind to keep it glowing
Technology is ubiquitous, and if you're not using data and technology to grow your business, you're already falling behind
It's clear that retail has entered a new era with greater challenges and demands, all of which will require new skills. The next five years are likely to be some of the most exciting we've ever seen in the world of retail, so hang, because it's going to be a wild ride.
If you were at the show, I would love to hear your thoughts.
Jeff Weidauer is vice president of marketing and strategy for Vestcom, a provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. With over 30 years of retail experience, Jeff is a prominent speaker, writer and expert source to retailers, brands and media on shopper marketing and the evolving retail industry.