The National Retail Federation makes a statement holding its annual convention in the Big Apple. Retail is as much a part of New York as Wall Street and Broadway, says outgoing board chairman Terry Lundgren, president of Macy's Inc.
And he isn't just trying to promote his flagship store, although the plug can't hurt.
Spend a little time in Manhattan, and you quickly notice retail matters here. Chains plant their best, flashiest stores near Times Square and Fifth Avenue, showing a world audience that, "Yes, we've made it big!''
Stores that seem ordinary at home pop with excitement and beg shoppers to buy, buy, buy. Toys "R" Us has an indoor Ferris wheel. Forever 21 has four floors. I've never craved an M&M so badly until I walked through the store and saw the candies in every color and combination.
A record 27,000 people from around the world are in New York for Retail's BIG Show, which continues through Wednesday. The number of attendees baring badges from Brazil is impressive and a reminder that if you haven't figured out the Latin American market yet, you better. Quickly.
The conference spends a lot of time on numbers. As in $586 billion, the projected sales for the 2012 holiday season. As in 18,000 stores for Starbucks, up from a measly 11 in 1987. You hear many times how retail is the barometer of the economy and how the industry accounts for one in every four jobs in the nation. You also get an earful about how the digital world, in particular smartphones and tablets, is changing how people shop, so you better get prepared or be left behind.
Vicki Cantrell, executive director of NRF's Shop.org, summed it up succinctly when she said, "This is a fabulously disruptive time for retail."
Particularly noteworthy was the federation's Gold Medal winner this year. The group chose Jeffrey Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, whose idea of shopping has nothing to do with traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Even Bezos himself seemed to acknowledge the irony: "It's really great to get this recognition from this group," he said, stressing that the success of Amazon has had a lot to do with "planetary alignment" and luck.
That probably comes as little consolation to retailers struggling to compete with Amazon on price, selection and convenience. Since its founding in 1995, Seattle-based Amazon has become a global leader for reimagining the art of shopping 24/7. Revenue reached $48 billion in 2011.
"Amazon can be like a boogeyman in our industry, but it's waking us up," said Jill Puleri, a retail vice president for IBM.
Collectively, retailers seem eager to embrace new technology and think outside the stuff-within-four-walls concept. Mobile is the buzzword in the expo hall of 500 vendors, whether it be mobile checkout or mobile sales transactions. If it can happen on a handheld device, everyone wants to know about it.
For those on the fence, Puleri quoted a recent study of 26,000 shoppers. An encouraging 84 percent said their last purchase was at a store, but only about half said their next purchase would come from a store. That's challenging news for store owners.
Puleri urged retailers to embrace, not shun, showroomers, those shoppers who look at items in stores but buy for cheaper online. Showroomers are active, educated consumers who frequent chat rooms and write reviews, she said. They are typically male and 18 to 34 years old. If they have a good experience, they tell their friends.
Starbucks president Howard Schultz gave the audience a little tough love, telling businesses to stop "walking around silently like everything is okay."
The time is now to send a message to Washington, D.C., that politics as usual won't cut it, he said. Retailers must get involved in the political progress and find that balance between sales performance and empathy.
The distance between Washington and New York isn't that far.