When the National Retail Federation’s annual trade show and conference opens today at New York’s Javits Convention Center, it will be missing several of its planned keynote speakers, a number of major exhibitors, and about 10,000 attendees who had been expected to attend before the omicron wave swept across the country.
But leaders of the trade group, who since the pandemic began have advocated for keeping stores open, and praised retailers for their ability to successfully navigate the challenges of Covid-19, said the time for shutdowns and virtual events is over.
“As we move from the pandemic to endemic – a new environment in which we say life can and should go on – there’s going to be friction as we adjust. This year’s show is a step forward, and we believe it’s a necessary and meaningful one,” Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the Federation, said in a LinkedIn post explaining the decision to proceed with the show even as a flurry of cancellations were announced during the two weeks leading up to the event.
Stephanie Martz, chief administrative officer and general counsel for the National Retail Federation, in a Jan. 5 interview cited by CNBC, noted that frontline retail workers have had to show up in-person during the entire pandemic.
Proceeding with the conference, Martz said, reinforces the NRF message “that we think the economy can and should be open for business.”
The National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail industry association, has been hosting its annual conference for more than 100 years. The pandemic forced it to cancel the January 2021 in-person show, and switch to a virtual event. The group had hoped to have an in-person event in June, 2021, in New York, but also had to switch that event to virtual because the Javits Center was being used as a vaccination site.
The event, known as the “Big Show”, has in pre-pandemic times drawn more than 40,000 retailers and exhibitors from around the world to the Javits Center. The Federation now says it expects 15,000 attendees this year, down from earlier estimates of 25,000 attendees.
Some of the most prominent exhibitors from previous shows, including retail tech firms SAP Retail, SAS, and Zebra Technologies
The National Retail Federation is requiring attendees to provide proof of vaccination in order to receive a green wristband that will allow them to enter the Javits Center. Attendees also are required to wear masks, and the NRF has promised to make rapid tests and PCR tests available for all attendees.
While omicron has hurt attendance, the NRF and retailers have something to celebrate as the show opens – the news that retail sales grew by a record 14.1% during the two-month holiday period, to $886.7 billion, despite the ongoing pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and inflation.
The holiday results, Shay said, “are a clear testament to the power of the consumer and the ingenuity of retailers and their workers.”