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Three Major Themes From NRF’s Big Show, From DEI to Sustainability

Despite Omicron concerns, the National Retail Federation’s Big Show took place live and in-person this week at the Javits Center in New York City.

Considered one of the biggest trade shows in the U.S., the event braved growing waves of COVID-19 and went live with a show that was predicted to bring over 15,000 attendees, including 750 exhibitors and over than 300 speakers.

Earlier in January, almost 70 attendees reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus after attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, though it is unclear how they contracted the virus. In advance of the show, NRF rolled out updated safety protocols for the show in December and required all attendees to provide proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Masks were also required to be worn while indoors at the conference and NRF provided N95 and KN95 masks to attendees.

Overall, there appeared to be a large turnout at the first two days of the event (which ends on Tuesday afternoon), despite some attendees and speakers pulling out at the last minute. Target said on Friday that it dialed back participation in the show amid Omicron concerns, though CEO Brian Cornell still attended to give a keynote speech on Sunday morning. While many sessions went on as planned, some were cancelled and others switched to virtual at the last minute.

Despite the unusual environment this year, NRF’s Big Show featured a slew of top executives and various discussions about the state of retail. Here were the top three themes that defined much of the event.

DEI advancements

Various sessions were focused on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion. For example, at a Monday keynote session that occurred on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Walmart’s U.S. president and CEO John Furner spoke about the company’s progress within its DEI efforts, especially in recent years.

Walmart rolled out a series of commitments in June of 2020 to work towards improving racial inequity and diversity in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man. In June of 2020 Walmart Inc. and its philanthropic arm said it would donate $100 million over five years through a Center for Racial Equity to address racial disparities in the U.S.

“We have to be really transparent,” explained Furner, referring to the importance of measuring and sharing progress. “We need to be open about it.”

In another session focused on DEI initiatives, Savage X Fenty co-president and chief merchant Christiane Pendarvis spoke about how her company focuses on bringing in diverse candidates and creating a safe place for conversations regarding racism and inclusion.

“Our brand stands for representation, diversity, inclusivity and showcasing people who have not been seen or heard in the fashion industry,” Pendarvis said.

Physical stores are still important

Despite the major boon to online sales during the pandemic, many retail leaders expressed optimism about the future of physical stores during their speeches at NRF’s Big Show.

Target CEO Brian Cornell rolled out a store-centered business approach in 2017, which he said became even more crucial throughout pandemic shutdowns and was responsible for Target’s outstanding performance throughout the last two years. According to Cornell, a mix between digital and physical — a long-time area of focus for Target — will continue to define retail and Target’s business in the future.

“As we go forward, there’s going to be that great balance between consumers who still love physically being in a store and who want all the ease and convenience and safety that comes along with just driving up and receiving that order or having something put on their doorstep,” Cornell said.

Sustainability is here to stay

Sustainability is defining how companies are winning over the increasingly eco-minded consumer.

At one featured session at the Big Show on Sunday, sustainability leaders from Walmart and Rothy’s discussed their tips for creating and seeing through sustainability goals for a company. According to Zach Freeze, Walmart’s senior director of sustainability, companies that want to make an impact in the realm of sustainability should focus on setting attainable, medium-term targets in order to keep goals as practical as possible. Rothy’s head of sustainability Saskia van Gendt also spoke about the importance of setting short-term goals as well.

“We have to get started now,” said Freeze.

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