The retail industry is pushing further with the conference, trying to push for normality

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

Wang Ying | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

“The big show will continue,” National Retail Federation President Matt Shay said Monday.

And on Friday, even as more speakers and attendees withdraw from the conference, it remains the professional group’s plan.

The National Retail Federation kicks off its annual gathering in New York City this weekend. It is one of a series of annual conferences and fairs that start a new year each January. But with omicron pushing Covid cases to new heights, conference scheduling has become complex and has prompted industries to make tough calls.

The JP Morgan Healthcare conference – which attracts doctors, large pharmaceutical companies and start-up healthcare companies – decided to hold its annual event pretty much this week. CES 2022, a trade show organized by the Consumer Technology Association, went ahead with its event the previous week, albeit with smaller audiences. And the film industry announced it will go ahead with plans to hold the Berlin International Film Festival in person in February, while the Sundance Film Festival, scheduled for later this month, has become virtual.

The decisions are in some cases symbolic and reflect the challenges of companies as companies try to push consumers towards more normality. Merchants and pharmacies have kept their doors open and shops manned during previous waves of the pandemic. Cinemas are trying to woo audiences as some people have become bored of sitting next to strangers.

“As we move beyond the pandemic to endemic, this year’s convention is a step forward in this new environment,” the NRF said in a statement Friday. “It’s definitely going to be a little messy, but it’s a step forward.”

There will be fewer opportunities for people to take off their masks, drink and have fun like previous conferences. The NRF recently decided to postpone two of its major events – a awards gala and a more intimate dinner hosted by the NRF’s Foundation – until mid-April. The Foundation sent personal notes to CEOs and award recipients on January 6, announcing the change. It also indefinitely postponed a student program that coincides with the big show and typically attracts about 800 college-age participants to education and networking.

NRF has announced stricter security measures. In addition to requiring masks and proof of vaccination, it plans to distribute N95 masks and Covid test kits at home.

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 collected by Johns Hopkins University, more than three times the level seen below last winter’s previous record. While cases of omicron may be milder than previous strains of the virus, hospitalizations are also increasing, especially over the last two weeks.

Against this background, the expected attendance at the NRF’s Big Show has dropped. NRF’s Shay said in a post on LinkedIn on Monday that the show continues. He said the conference was expected to draw as many as 20,000 attendees and 750 exhibitors. About 40,000 people attended the big show in 2019.

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

Almost every day that passes has brought about changes in the conference schedule. Jessica Alba’s Honest Company confirmed last Friday that the company’s founder and CEO had dropped out of the lineup. Case Manager Marc Metrick resigned earlier this week. Both were featured speakers for the main stage at the event.

Target said Friday that CEO Brian Cornell is still planning to attend the event. He is scheduled to hold a keynote and receive the professional group’s “Visionary” award. However, the company said it reduced travel for other employees who planned to leave and explored ways to participate virtually.

A session with Tapestry, Coach and Kate Spade’s parent company, is no longer listed on the three-day agenda. Meanwhile, CEOs of Old Navy, Stitch Fix, Lowe’s and Nordstrom have chosen not to travel to the conference and will instead hold their sessions virtually.

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

So far, the NRF has not offered a virtual opportunity for participants or for any speakers who are not set to be on the main stage of the Javits Center.

We feel it is now an appropriate time to reunite somehow. It’s time to start normalizing.

Stephanie Martz

Advocate General, National Retail Federation

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

Since omicron is highly contagious, there is a fear that an event that draws thousands of attendees could become a super spreading event. Nearly 70 attendees, including some Samsung executives, have been tested positive for coronavirus after CES was held last week in Las Vegas, according to a Reuters report. It is not clear whether these attendees incurred Covid while at the tech show or from off-site events, such as dinner at a restaurant.

The site of the NRF’s Big Show, Javits Center, is already believed to be the source of the first known case of omicron proliferation in the United States, after clusters of cases were discovered among the approximately 53,000 people gathered there for an anime conference in November.

‘Open for business’

NRF is pushing for the conference, as many retail workers who receive the minimum wage – or close to it – show up to work every day in shops and department stores. Many of the industry’s top executives and company employees, on the other hand, have been able to work from the comfort and safety of home.

“The fact is, it’s really, really important for all of us to keep in mind that our frontline retailers have been working all the time, and we’re asking them to come to work and deal with customers,” said Stephanie Martz, CEO and Advocate General of the NRF, in an interview on 5 January.

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

“Individual companies make the decisions they have to make on their own, and we certainly do not blame them for that if we have people pulling out, but we believe as the trade association representing the retailers that we should take advantage of the fact that that we are in a place where we can say that we believe the economy can and should be open to business, “she said.

“We feel now is an appropriate time to reunite in some way,” Martz added. “This is a time to start normalizing.”

NRF’s Shay reiterated 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 mood of our members, exhibitors, dealers, collaborators and participants is that we must 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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