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NRF Chapter One: Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

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If you’re a frequent reader of this newsletter, you know that it regularly publishes on a Tuesday. But because these are not regular times, and because a highly irregular version of the industry’s biggest trade show – NRF – kicked off yesterday, we bumped publication by a day so we could attend and report on what we saw at day one of the new, virtual version of the NRF Big Show, what they are now calling “Chapter One.”

The sessions are stretched across this week and next, and so far, I must say, I’m genuinely impressed.

Mike George, CEO of Qurate Retail (formerly known as Liberty Interactive) kicked things off with what could only be described as a cheerleading session for why retail is – and will remain – a vital part of our economy and our social well-being. At a time when civil unrest, job losses, and plague dominate the news cycle, there was nothing enviable about his task. And yet he reminded the audience of many of the remarkable things that this industry was able to achieve in the past 12 months – both collectively and at individual brand levels – when faced with incredible adversity.

Apart from the necessary nods to the ways in which retailers adapted to protect the health and safety of both employees and customers, some retailers stepped up in big ways in the early days of the pandemic to provide PPE for health care workers (that’s one I hadn’t forgotten about). But several also hosted food drives for those in need, and some stepped up with hazard pay and benefits for their workers (some, notably, did not – the content of which would be enough for an entire article, itself). QVC and HSN did something I had heard nothing about: helping small businesses by creating a “small business spotlight” feature, giving on-air time to one mom-and-pop at a time to promote their products. Over 40 such brands have been given air-time, to date.

At the brand level, many retailers also completed complex technical projects in months that previously would have taken years. Lowes, for example, initiated curbside pickup a year ahead of plan. Gap opened an automated distribution center two months ahead of schedule. Target built new tech to allow customers to reserve a virtual place in the physical lines of people waiting outdoors to get into their stores.  

I can only speak for myself, but must admit I’d already forgotten a great deal of these achievements amidst the aforementioned doom and gloom. It’s easy to do. And George’s was a welcome reminder of the positive things we really should not forget. He concluded with announcing NRF’s three-pronged approach to legislative priorities in 2021:

  1. Improve global trade relations
  2. Help accelerate COVID-19 relief
  3. Enact bi-partisan solutions to retail-specific laws

These three tied nicely into the next keynote of the day, Matt Shay’s conversation with former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.

One of the most adamant things we stress to our advisory clients when planning a user group is that when searching for a keynote speaker – avoid political figures. At best, you stand to isolate roughly 50% of your audience.

And yet in this case, whether due to the softening nature of the passage of time since the administration under which Ms. Rice served or whether due to just how insane the events of the past few weeks have been, the vast majority of highly visible comments scrolling along the screen during the hour-long conversation were highly appreciative. Mine included.

If you have the chance to view this conversation on demand, you should. I’ve advised everyone who missed it to do so, with one caveat: try to think of both of the speakers talking as representatives of their feelings and viewpoints today – not in 2001; not even in 2016. If you are able to do that, there’s a lot to unpack within, but two of the points that really grabbed my attention related to 1) globalism and trade and 2) the lack of – and the need to restore – commonality among citizens of this society.

As it relates to trade, Ms. Rice, a self-described “unapologetic globalist” (again, please think in terms of 2021, not at any point in the past), walked the audience through how the global policies that began after WWII lead to tremendous prosperity, largely in a sense of “my gain doesn’t have to come at your loss.” The people left behind by this march, however, were those whose skills were unable to keep up. So for a coal miner in West Virginia, “How come I am not doing well?” is a vacuum far easier filled by a populist blaming an other (in this case trade, despite the fact that the more probably “other” is automation – but robots don’t make good “others”) – or for a factory worker in Britain: Brexit.

The fact that we’re all currently living off the benefits of large-scale government investments from a long time ago plays heavily into the equation as well. Both Apple and Google were able to innovate because generations earlier, government had made massive investments in universities. Immigration has played a large part of it as well – Google never could have been invented if Sergey Brin’s family had remained in Russia when he was a child.

So Ms. Rice argued that jobs, skills, education, and opportunity all will rise once the US adopts a more global view of trade once more, particularly if it is able to put  emphasis on embracing its alliance with countries like India going forward.

Yet it was when the conversation turned to the ability to see humanity in one another that the comment board noticeably lit up. After the 2016 election, people started saying things like “I need to go to Alabama to see what those people are like,” and Hillbilly Elegy became a best seller. As if “these people” are an entirely different race of humanity. The fact is, we don’t know each other anymore. Ms. Rice’s suggestion? Perhaps what this country needs most is national service for all.

The conversation sounded almost identical to one I’d recently had with friends. How our parents and grandparents, regardless of their age or background, stayed close with friends they’d made in the military from decades ago. The ability to understand and relate to a rich Asian kid from California, or a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn, or a dumb Irish person from a farm, or the brilliant Black woman from Alabama. To Ms. Rice’s point: “It happens in sports all the time. Kids from entirely different backgrounds know and support each other, but we don’t all get to play football or basketball.” And a result – we don’t know each other. And it doesn’t necessarily mean pickup up arms: just service, perhaps during a gap year. The infrastructure of this country could certainly use the help.

If you can’t tell, I really enjoyed the conversation. And just a few days after watching a violent mob of US citizens attack their own Capitol’s police department, I think the audience at large appreciated its exact timeliness and candor.

NRF is calling this event Chapter One to keep people from thinking this will be their only event this year. Ever the optimists these days, the trade organization is hoping to do an in-person version of the show in New York June 6-8th. We’d love to believe that is possible, but with vaccine rollouts such as they are, seems highly unlikely. But we can all hope, right?

As for this Chapter One? So far it’s been a very different, NRF, indeed. And I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

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