By: Jim Roddy, President & CEO at the RSPA
“It doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full. Be grateful that you have a glass, and there is something in it.”
I don’t know who’s responsible for that saying, but I wish they produced a line of T-shirts with that quote emblazoned on the front. I would have worn one this week while I attended the NRF Big Show, held Jan. 16-18 at the Javits Convention Center in New York City.
NRF 2022 will go down as maybe the lowest-attended of all-time because the Omicron variant caused most retailers and exhibitors to bail on the event last minute. The remaining attendees knew the numbers would be down, but even a pessimist had to be shocked to see a barren show floor and empty aisleways that would normally be filled shoulder-to-shoulder with event goers. To see some NRF scenes for yourself, click here for a photo thread I posted on Twitter during Day 1.
At the beginning of the event, I would say to anyone grousing about the attendance, “Yeah, but half a show is better than no show at all!” Near the end of the first day, when it was apparent attendance was off by more than 50%, I started saying, “A third of a show is better than nothing, right?” Early on Day 2, I changed my tune to, “Well, I’d rather have one-fifth of a show than nothing like we had last year!”
Please don’t call this “the worst NRF ever” as I expect some will. Instead, use these three different adjectives:
- The weirdest NRF ever: 100+ empty spaces and several “ghost booths” – exhibit spaces set up but unstaffed due to the pandemic – made this by far the weirdest event I’ve ever attended. One attendee described the main show floor as “relaxing.” Others called it “surreal” and “eerie.” I agree it was the weirdest trade show I’ve ever seen – and I recently walked MJBizCon, which featured a monkey crawling on booths, an attendee in bare feet, and a fistfight on the show floor, not to mention cannabis smoking outside the convention center!
- The friendliest NRF ever: At most shows, you might get five or 10 minutes with an exhibitor before they’re interrupted by a scheduled meeting or prospect inquiry. But with the lack of traffic, exhibitors were welcoming to anyone who showed interest in their products and services. “Let me show you our products … Yes, I’m happy to also share our go-to-market plans … While you’re here, tell me about your family!” Additionally, I noticed a “Band of Brothers mentality” developed among attendees, appreciative of everyone else overcoming so many obstacles and taking a risk to participate in the event. Nothing builds camaraderie like mutual commitment to an effort despite fierce headwinds.
- The most important NRF ever: We have to figure out ASAP how to conduct business safely because COVID doesn’t look like it’s disappearing any time soon. NRF 2022 afforded a few thousand attendees the opportunity to meet and collaborate safely, and they did. From what I saw, 98-99% of attendees respected the mask mandate and each other’s health. Their organizations moved the needle this week in New York City and helped our industry begin to get back on track.
If anyone is displeased about the NRF show, maybe this will give them some perspective: a sparsely attended event at the Javits is far better than the facility being used as a crisis center for overwhelmed New York City hospitals.
I’m grateful our industry is moving forward again, even if the steps are smaller than we’re accustomed to.
A few other thoughts from NRF 2022:
- The top technology discussed at the show was AI (artificial intelligence) – in a landslide. The applications varied, but software, analytics, and insights based on AI were on the tip of nearly every vendor’s tongue.
- While many of the largest exhibitors pulled out of the event, most of the smaller companies still showed up. I think the big boys figured they could take a hit while the little guys – the hungry startups and the Davids looking to take a chunk out of Goliath – felt compelled to race forward once they caught a glimpse of daylight.
- I was pleasantly surprised many NRF exhibitors I talked with are embracing the SMB market and the VAR channel. Tier I and II retailers are usually the target of NRF exhibitors, but it appears ISVs are crafting their products for merchants of all sizes. Gone are the days of cutting-edge products that will “come down market in a few years.” Today’s software is being crafted to scale up as well as scale down. Along with that, these vendors recognize they can’t build a direct sales force that penetrates SMB efficiently and effectively. Many exhibitors volunteered to me their desire to attract VARs before I could promote the concept to them.