The National Retail Federation (NRF) faced difficult decisions preceding the January 2022 annual “BIG Show” conference at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City. Once the wave of Omicron cases began to cover the U.S. in late December, a not-insignificant number of high-profile exhibitors and speakers pulled out, and registered attendees tapped out in droves. Other high-profile events around the same time pulled the plug, and the Big Show’s cancellation was assumed by many to be a foregone conclusion.
As we all know, retailers continue to deal with the empty shelves, angry customers, not enough staff and increased exposure to COVID, so the retail industry’s main advocacy group deciding to shut down its primary trade conference for the second year in a row, without exhausting every option, wouldn’t be a good look. So, the show, as they say, went on.
According to Matt Shay, President and CEO of NRF, they marked about 20,000 attendees and 800 companies exhibiting, and big kudos to the NRF for balancing health risk with the need to get business activity accomplished, while figuring out how to safely put on an in-person event of this size and scale. Only those who are double-vaxxed would be allowed entry, mask-wearing mandatory except while eating, and social distancing was encouraged. Once attendees uploaded their vaccination cards and photo ID to the Clear Health Pass mobile app, they received a pass for the conference, which they showed on their phone when they entered the Javits Center and received a green wristband. The show floor had some empty spots, and the floor traffic was not the usual NRF rugby-scrum mob scene, and several panels were cancelled.
Since retail crime is, unfortunately, a very timely issue, I met with Shajahan Merchant, the founder of threatvision.ai, an early-stage startup that addresses retail crime. The AI-based solution integrates with existing surveillance and security systems and analyzes camera feeds to detect threats in real time.
“If a bad guy comes into a convenience store and pulls out a handgun, the solution enables the surveillance camera to instantly spot and identify the weapon and then sends an instant text message to the owner’s cellphone with photo and a threat assessment and, when necessary, mobilizes emergency response,” said Merchant. “It’s like a combination of a license plate reader and a visual version of the ShotSpotter service that is used in many major cities.”
ShotSpotter is a network of acoustic sensors that can identify whether a gunshot was fired in an area and when detected, notifies law enforcement.
I also attended the featured session, “Transforming the culture of convenience,” a panel discussion that looked at how the trends of online ordering and delivery, healthy prepared foods and good-for-you snacks are converging to drive a reinvention of the category.
Chicago-based Foxtrot’s business, which started as an app, is now 50% split between online and in-store. Panelist Carla Dunham, chief marketing officer for the chain, said her advice was to make sure that, as more and more c-store operations go online, digital is “not a substitute for hospitality.” The week prior to NRF, Foxtrot announced $100 million in new Series C funding to widen their brick-and-mortar footprint to a panned 50 new locations within the next two years.
Other panelists included Mike Fogarty, the founder and CEO of Denver-based Choice Market, and Rachel Krupa, founder of The Goods Mart, a collection of several stores in high-profile Manhattan locations. Both agreed that one of the big key differentiators for any successful c-store in the near-future, (what Krupa calls “the new 7-Eleven”) will be a “focus on fresh, locally bought and carefully curated healthy food and products.”
One of the key elements of covering NRF for the c-store audience is to pass up the massive three-story booths from the Oracles and Microsofts of the retail tech ecosystem and wander the show floor where some of the medium- and smaller-sized booths are and look for vendors that tout c-store chains as customers on their booth signage and in the marketing literature.
I noticed the Love’s Travel Stops logo at the booth of Algonomy, which sells algorithmic decision-making solutions. According to Joe Hall, director of business development for the brand, Love’s uses Algonomy’s tech to gain “a real-time view of inventory, driving more revenue by drastically reducing out-of-stock events, and supporting Love’s with collaborative demand planning, new product introductions, promotion planning and placements.”
The last-minute uncertainty surrounding the event seemed apropos, since much about the retail industry is uncertain at the moment. This was touched on in just about every session.
So, what’s next? During his keynote, “Earning customer loyalty: A fresh take from Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran,” Albertsons CEO Vivek Sankaran may have said it best: “I don’t know.”
Stay tuned for part 2 of the recap of NRF 2022.
David Hochman is a freelance writer and the owner of New Jersey-based DJH Marketing Communications, Inc. He can be reached at [email protected].