With holiday shoppers feeling better about spending, the nation's retailers are encouraged about their prospects in what's shaping up as a long jobless recovery.
"Our premium brands like Sperry are doing terrific while our mass-market brands like Payless Shoes Source remain challenged," said Matt Rubel chief executive of Collective Brands, the nation's biggest footwear chain. "But I'm seeing positive signs. The high-end customer clearly is back. And when we do get the mainstream customer in the store, they buy."
Perpetual optimists, top retail industry leaders in New York for the annual National Retail Federation convention heard forecasts of continued modest economic growth and jobs despite rising prices for gas, cotton and many food items.
"After three very lean years, 2011 should be very good," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. "We are close to creating enough jobs to start bringing unemployment down."
There wasn't much time for celebrating, however, as record hordes of tech vendors mobbed top chain executives with sales pitches that tap into retailers' new obsession: the march of mobile and wireless technology.
"It's not about the Internet anymore," said Jill Puleri, retail industry leader for IBM.
"In 10 years, the entire world will be mobile 24 hours a day with a device that's getting smaller and more powerful," said Peter Sachese, chief marketing officer with Macy's Inc. "We have to get our hands around this because the consumer demands a two-way dialogue."
Actual sales results linked to smart phones and social media remain minimal, but it's hard to miss how many people are texting, comparison shopping and researching products while shopping their stores. It's so common that some stores are adding WiFi to the sales floor to improve reception for savvy shoppers browsing rivals online.
An IBM survey found only 14 percent of shoppers have no interest in using a smart phone to augment their shopping experience. That's down from 20 percent a year ago.
Much of the latest retail tech explosion is rooted in the spread of wireless technologies, not all of it linked to cell phones. Walmart and Macy's are starting to replace UPC bar codes on apparel with little radio transmitter chips that are packed with 10 times the information on color, size and where every item is. It enables the stores to account for their stock at any instant. The process, known as RFID, or radio frequency identification, also lets salespeople find an item with a handheld device that ticks like a Geiger counter when they get close.
Also among the new tricks, vendors are pushing flat-screen TVs that superimpose animated dresses over a live shot of a customer. Intel unveiled a big digital sign that shows targeted videos to passing shoppers. It uses face-detection software to determine the shopper's gender and approximate age.
Today's big mobile phone apps for shopping in stores — price comparisons, digital coupons, shopping lists, store-navigation aides and group bargain sites like Groupon — were labeled as "just scratching the surface" by Patti Maes, who creates Jetsons-worthy products at the MIT Media Lab.
"Today's shopping connectivity between the smart phone and the Internet is too cumbersome and requires learning how to use them," she said. "In a couple years, it all will be seamlessly integrated."
She unveiled a lightbulb-sized prototype that screws into a electrical socket. Touch a product placed under its projected light and an index appears on any smooth surface. The index has links to product information, instruction manuals, price comparisons and a button to buy. Plus there's a teleconference link to ask questions of a live expert at another location.
She sees a home application embedded on the product linked back to the store with warranty information, upgrade notices and discount offers. Just touch the product to choose what you want.
"The store will become a showroom offering an immersive experience," she said. "But the product you sell will become your store."
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.