Clockwise from top left: Ira Kalish of Deloitte; Janey Whiteside of Walmart; Marc Metrick of Saks Fifth Avenue; Colleen Taylor of American Express, who interviewed Marc Metrick; and Mike George, chairman of the NRF

Clockwise from top left: Ira Kalish of Deloitte; Janey Whiteside of Walmart; Marc Metrick of Saks Fifth Avenue; Colleen Taylor of American Express, who interviewed Marc Metrick; and Mike George, chairman of the NRF


NRF Big Show Charts How Retail Survived COVID

The National Retail Federation’s NRF 2021: Retail’s Big Show—Chapter One, an annual exposition that produces seminars and keynote addresses by industry stars, went virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of NRF 2021’s virtual sessions discussed staying afloat during the pandemic. It was produced over six days, Jan. 12–14, 19 and 21–22. The shared challenges of the past 11 months created a camaraderie of getting through an unusually tough time, said Mike George, president and chief executive officer of Quarate Retail Inc. and chairman ofthe NRF, who gave the keynote address.

“This year’s theme of the Big Show, Forward Together, reflects the pride that I think we all feel in how we became tougher as an industry to meet the extraordinary challenges of 2020 and also our confidence that together we will take retail to new heights in 2021 and beyond,” he said.

Retailers and analysts speaking at the event charted what was next for the industry. Retailers interviewed forecasted that bricks-and-mortar would continue to play a vibrant role. During a Jan. 21 fireside chat titled “Retail’s Rethink Moment: Reimagining Business as Unusual With Saks Fifth Avenue and Lululemon,” Marc Metrick, president and CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue, said his store’s digital business surged during the pandemic. But the luxury retailer’s business started growing even faster when its physical stores reopened for business, albeit at limited hours.

“Stores are still very important,” he said. “Stores are a very important part of the overall customer experience. For luxury especially, it’s theater. To touch, to feel, to experience. I used to compare it to “Hamilton”—until they streamed it on Disney+. People want to go to the theater. They want to experience it not just stream it online.”

Fashion retail also got a vote of confidence during the pandemic, Metrick said.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the resiliency of our consumers and how it relates to their desire for fashion. People were buying things at the worst times of the pandemic that there was no functional end use for, but they love fashion, they view the luxury as the comfort food of retail. It was their escapism,” he said.

Janey Whiteside, chief customer officer at Walmart Inc., also forecasted that bricks-and-mortar stores would continue to be important. But she noted that there is a robust future in omni-channel services, such as buy online, pick up at store.

“We saw the use of services like pickup increase dramatically, particularly as it relates to pickup and delivery of food and other consumable items,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic in Q1, we saw a peak of 300 percent growth in those services and four times as many new customers using pickup and delivery services.”

The past 11 months have forced retailers to change. Marvin Ellison, president and CEO of Lowe’s Companies, Inc., said his company redeveloped its e-commerce business.

“Two years ago we couldn’t offer a customer an e-receipt. We couldn’t set up a schedule for associates in the stores that worked for both customer demand and the associates’ lifestyles. The e-commerce platform was running on a decade-old infrastructure. Our job was to put the foundation in place so the superstructure could grow quickly and be stable,” he said.

Expect technological change to continue in the upcoming year, said Christina Fontana on the panel “Luxury Goes Digital: Understand How Alibaba and Moschino Are Driving New Innovations.” Fontana is the head of fashion and luxury with the Tmall Luxury division of the Alibaba Group, a China-headquartered retail, digital-media and cloud-computing company. She forecasted that digitization of functions would continue to inform the development of supply chains, logistics and merchandising. She also forecasted that local shopping would become more important and shoppers would increasingly seek retailers based in regions where they live.

Customers’ receptiveness to working with technology has increased. During a seminar with the retailer Zulily, Brian Long, CEO and co-founder of Attentive, a personalized mobile-messaging platform, said that more than 90 percent of customers are interested in getting texts from brands.

Economic forecasts also were made during the show. During a talk with Walmart’s Whiteside, Ira Kalish, chief global economist for the Deloitte accounting, consulting and professional-services network, said that the economy would continue to experience disruptions. “Our expectation for much of 2021 is that the economy will grow slowly and there will continue to be substantial disruption of the consumer market. Our hope, of course, is that with the vaccine we’ll see by the end of the year a significant pickup in economic activity,” Kalish said.

The NRF: Retail’s Big Show—Chapter Two will start on June 6.