WASHINGTON, D.C. — As it does every January, the retail community gathered for the National Retail Federation's (NRF) annual conference. However, this year, industry players gathered around screens in their home offices, dining rooms and emptier-than-usual corporate buildings rather than at the Javits Center in New York.
"This year's theme 'Forward Together' reflects the pride I think we all feel on how we came together as an industry to meet the extraordinary challenges of 2020, and also our confidence that together we will take retail to new heights in 2021 and beyond," said Mike George, NRF chairman and president and CEO of Qurate Retail Group Inc.
Speaking during the keynote session of NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show — Chapter One on Jan. 12, George noted that before the pandemic hit, the industry had enjoyed a long period of economic expansion with retail sales growing steadily for a decade. At the same time, retail was in the midst of a long-term and sometimes messy digital transformation, which some referred to as the retail apocalypse, "but we knew better," he added.
"Retail has always been a dynamic industry, constantly innovating to better serve our customers. That willingness to embrace change and find a better way has made us the backbone of the U.S. economy supporting 52 million — one in four — private sector jobs," George said.
The industry's ability to pivot was key in facing 2020 and rising above its challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world upside down.
"That spirit of innovation, that spirit of customer focus, prepared us for a global pandemic that overnight changed everything about how we live, how work, how we operate as retailers. As an industry, we faced a novel and grave health crisis for which there were few answers early on and many diverse views at every level of government on how best to respond," he explained.
"We faced mandatory closures for most in-store retail, and we witnessed dramatic and sudden changes in consumer preferences for all things home and health related and toward online shopping — all compounded by severe supply chain challenges and the ongoing political turmoil," George continued.
According to the chairman, the retail industry showed resiliency as it remained open as "economic first responders" and served customers in new ways, while making the health and safety of its employees, partners, customers and communities a priority.
Changes implemented, he noted, included:
Limits on the number of people at locations;
Mask and social distancing requirements;
Installation of sanitation stations and implementing of robust cleaning protocols;
Redirected traffic flows;
Special shopping hours for at-risk groups; and
Enhanced pay and benefits.
"Then, we innovated. We expanded our online capabilities and integrated them with in-store options. We completed projects in months that previously would have taken years," he said. "These efforts perfectly aligned with what our customers needed from us, and the customer responded, enabling us to set and beat many digital sales records."
NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show — Chapter One took place virtually Jan. 12-14 and Jan. 21-22. NRF 2021: Retail's Big Show — Chapter Two is slated to take place June 6-9.