NEW YORK - NRF president and CEO Matt Shay opened Monday's sessions at the NRF 100th Annual Convention & EXPO with a message of optimism and hope, for an industry that is beginning to see the light at the end of a very dark tunnel.
“Last year, the retail industry proved to be one of the bright spots in the economy,” he said. “All of you managed to find a way to get it done, despite a tight economy. The relatively strong finish to the year doesn't in any way diminish the serious economic challenges we all face.”
Chief among those challenges, he noted the highest domestic unemployment since the Great Depression, and the possibility of increased inflation.
“But nevertheless, I think all of us are willing to bet that the retail industry is ready to lead the recovery when it comes,” he said.
He then ceded the stage to Dr. Mark Greene, CEO of FICO, who moderated the panel “Retail's Road to Recovery: Status Report on the Global Economy.”
“We feel better than we did a few months ago, because there is compelling evidence that consumer spending has returned,” he said.
His panelists included Claudio Del Vecchio, president and CEO of Brooks Brothers, who said his company had a “pretty big (holiday) season,” thanks to his company's premium-brand positioning.
“We don't believe is the norm for the whole industry, but living in the higher-end market, we really enjoyed better performance than other retailers,” he said.
Matthew Rubel, chairman and CEO of Collective Brands, which includes premium brands like Sperry and lower-end brands like Payless, echoed that sentiment.
“Our premium brands had an absolutely spectacular holiday season,” he said “We saw traffic and transactions very strong. The kids' business came a little bit later this year – I think people were more focused on themselves.”
As for the lower-end brands, those enjoyed single-digit growth within the United States, but performed much better elsewhere.
“The economic statistics are looking measurably better,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist and co-founder of Moody's Economy. “Going into 2011, there's reason to be upbeat. The job market is clearly improving. Credit is starting to flow a little bit more freely, and now we're going to get some tax cuts.”
And what are the lessons learned this year to prevent a return to the dark days recently passed? According to Rubel, it's a consistent and passionate focus on shoppers.
“Focus on your customers,” he said. “Innovate for them. Know how they shop, and why they shop. Buy low, sell, high, keep your overheads low. Anybody who goes beyond those fundamentals will wander.”