NEW YORK -- A world that is highly unstable and unequal could jeopardize future prosperity for retailers, former President Bill Clinton said during his keynote speech yesterday at the National Retail Federation's (NRF) 101st Annual Convention & Expo, taking place here through Wednesday.
Before speaking to a standing-room-only crowd that spanned more than two football fields deep, Macy's Inc. CEO Terry Lundgren introduced the 42nd U.S. President. "I think we can all agree that the world would not be the same place today without President Clinton's more than 35 years of public service," said Lundgren.
Clinton joked that he was speaking to a larger audience than normal. "I almost thought I was President again," he said. "And to the people in the back, it's so dark up here that you could leave and nobody would notice."
However, he quickly brushed aside the jokes to take a serious tone. "Even before the earthquake in Haiti, 70 percent of people in the [Western] Hemisphere were living on only $2 per day," he said. "Poverty rates are rising. That is not good for retail. Retail does best when there is a strong middle class."
Clinton added that no matter what job he's held in his life -- including the "unstable" profession of politics -- not once did he lose faith that he could make a living. The economic crisis has shattered that feeling among Americans. "Middle-aged men without college degrees have been particularly affected by the economic crisis. So, during recent hiring spurts, men have been taking retail jobs traditionally filled by women," he said.
The former President explained that the economic crisis is about much more than economics. "It's changed who people think they are, what they are worth and how they get through life with meaning."
Although Clinton cautioned the audience that retail could need to reinvent itself in the future, he also pointed out there are many positives in the world. "We are slowly recovering from the economic crisis," he said. "Last year, the retail industry grew by almost 5 percent, compared to the overall U.S. economy, which grew by only 2 percent. That's good news for all of you. As you know, retail makes up almost 20 percent of our GDP [gross domestic product], and supports about 25 percent of our jobs."
The former U.S. chief then recalled his first retail job, working for a grocery store at age 13. He subsequently talked the grocery store owner into allowing him to set up his own retail business within the store that sold used comic books. "I had two chests filled with perfectly preserved comic books," he recalled. "During the months I worked at the grocery store, I sold every one. I made about $100 and I felt like a millionaire. I now know I was a fool. If I had saved those comic books, they'd be worth $200,000 to $300,000 today. But it was a good experience."
When asked what retailers Clinton frequents, he responded that he shops in Chappaqua, N.Y., where he lives. He did not mention any convenience stores."There's a wonderful jewelry store I go to," he said. "I always buy something for Chelsea and Hillary there."
He also said he enjoys buying gifts of clothing and books at Christmas time. "There's a great book store in [New York City] called Argosy. It's run by three sisters who are all friends of mine. I first went in there when I didn't have a nickel to my name in 1983."
In related news to Clinton's comments, NRF forecast yesterday that U.S. retail sales will grow at a 3.4-percent clip in 2012, stronger than most other industries. Several economists predict that the U.S. GDP will rise by between 2.1 and 2.4 percent this year.
Retail sales grew by 4.7 percent in 2011. The trade association predicted that total retail sales will reach $2.53 trillion in 2012.
"Over the last 18 months, retailers have been on the forefront of the economic recovery -- creating jobs, encouraging consumer spending and investing in America," said NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay. "Our 2012 forecast is a vote of confidence in the retail industry and our ability to succeed even in a challenging economy."
Out on the expo floor, exhibitors had one thing at the top of their list during discussions with both retailers and the press: mobile wallets. Much of the talk revolved around consumers wanting something in return -- such as coupons or discounts -- in exchange for using their cell phones to make purchases.
Security concerns were offered as a major reason why consumers are unwilling to switch to mobile wallets. According to many manufacturers who spoke to CSNews Online, consumers have expressed concerns about having their personal information stolen by professional hackers when using a WiFi network on which mobile wallets operate.
NRF expects a record attendance of more than 22,000 at this year's event. Booth traffic on the expo floor appeared strong throughout much of the day on Monday.