RetailNOW 2021 Analysis: Reports of VARs’ Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

By: Jim Roddy, VP of Marketing & VAR/ISV Business Advisor at the RSPA

Back in 2016, at a networking event kicking off that year’s RetailNOW, a young executive confidently predicted to me, “Everyone walking the show floor here will be out of business in five years.” I disagreed vehemently.

More recently, a few channel vendor executives, citing what they perceived as the peril of the reseller community and the threat of COVID, predicted to me VARs would stay away from RetailNOW this year. In such an uncertain environment, I was hesitant to disagree and instead took a wait-and-see approach.

I’m happy to inform you after a whirlwind 48 hours this week at RetailNOW 2021, July 25-27 at the Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, reports of the demise of the retail IT VAR are greatly exaggerated.

Here’s some supporting data:

  • RetailNOW attracted several hundred VAR executives to Nashville, and every one of them I met with was serious about moving their organization forward. RSPA hasn’t tallied the final numbers yet (I’m writing this at the BNA airport), but at last check 38% more reseller executives attended this conference compared with RetailNOW 2019 in San Antonio, the last time our industry gathered. Reseller attendance for 2021 either surpassed or rivaled numbers in Orlando 2017 and Nashville 2018.
  • Exhibitors reported heavy traffic for all 11½ hours the show floor was open; education sessions were highly attended as well. The RetailNOW general session, featuring Jon Taffer of Bar Rescue fame, filled every seat. Many attendees stood against the back wall or sat on the floor to take in Taffer’s high-octane keynote. Breakout sessions were a bigger hit than the Nashville music scene as attendees jockeyed for open chairs in rooms that sat 100+. For the final education session block on the afternoon of the last day of the show – when resellers would be most likely to hit the road, the bar, or something else – I peeked in all six breakout rooms and dozens of VARs were in every one. In my decade-plus of RetailNOWs I had never experienced that.

Just before the show’s close, a reseller from Indiana told me that during the COVID shutdown she felt alone in her challenges. But after attending RetailNOW, she was energized by both the atmosphere and the new resources she discovered from both vendors and fellow VARs. She saw how her upgraded organization would fit into the long-term future of her merchant customers.

A vendor told me he was impressed with the diversity of the crowd – more women, more ethnicities, more millennials, more ISVs, more VAR/ISV hybrids, more solutions adjacent to POS, more new exhibitors – which were helping him generate new ideas and new partners.

The lifestyle POS dealer is fading fast, but RetailNOW 2021 proved high-initiative, growth-oriented VARs are alive and well – and here to stay.

Additional RetailNOW 2021 Observations

  • The software developer presence at RetailNOW was also impressive. Again, we don’t have the final numbers, but this could have been the largest ISV attendance in RSPA event history. ISVs have historically represented about 15% of RSPA members, but of the many new members who have joined the organization in the months leading up to the show, about 40% of them were software developer orgs. Several of my post-show follow-ups include inviting new RSPA members I met at the show to join the association’s Niche & Startup ISV Community.

Visit the RSPA Solution Center – a web platform designed to connect VARs and ISVs to providers of innovative solutions

  • The #1 challenge I heard from solution providers (SPs) at all levels – VARs, ISVs, vendors, and distributors – are current and anticipated hardware and chip shortages. SPs who keep limited inventory and rely on partners for just-in-time fulfillment are learning the cupboard is bare for some products due to COVID-related supply chain disruptions. One ISV/VAR hybrid I talked with said other resellers thought he was crazy to keep a year’s worth of inventory in his building, but they’re now jealous of him as they look for alternative product fulfillment plans.
  • RetailNOW went all-in this year on the cannabis vertical – and the channel responded. These photos from the first-ever Cannabis Community Networking Reception and first-ever cannabis education breakout made clear show attendees were eager to learn more about this market. And you know how some presentations yield no questions from the audience? I sat in on all four sessions of the cannabis track and the audience was engaged start-to-well-beyond-the-finish. Check out these photos of the presenters being swarmed by attendees after one session. If you’re interested in this vertical, please email me and I’m happy to share more details on the 150-person strong (and growing) RSPA Cannabis Community.
  • Being a professional wordsmith, I’m always on the lookout for vibrant descriptions. One RetailNOW vendor told me the conference was “electrifying.” A smiling VAR said there was “palpable excitement.” What a difference a year makes! For more unvarnished comments from channel executives about the show, just search the hashtag #RetailNOW2021 on LinkedIn.
  • Already looking ahead to future events, the RSPA announced RetailNOW 2022 will be held July 24-26 at the Gaylord Palms near Orlando and the Inspire 2022 executive conference is set for Jan. 23-26 at the Wyndham Grand Clearwater Beach.

Quotable Quotes from Nashville

My source for these nuggets of wisdom are the general session and the cannabis education track breakouts I attended (and captured on Twitter).

  • “Our enemy in today is the click. The digital world is conspiring right now to take your customers. Do we want to dig in or make excuses? Come up with a strategy or the click wins.” RetailNOW keynote Jon Taffer
  • “The common denominator of failure is an excuse.” Taffer
  • “Your inaction is unacceptable. Only working on your business is going to help you grow.” Taffer
  • “The cannabis industry has been around for years but only now is it generating tax revenue.” Dan Foote, MSP DanTech Services
  • “If a dispensary has been open a year, they have likely already changed POS software once.” Daniel Wilson, VAR Anthem Business Solutions
  • “Traditional rarely works in the cannabis world.” Randy Roe, VAR Retail Technology Services

Finally, thanks to Mark Twain for his assist with this blog post’s headline. :)

Don’t forget to visit the RSPA Solution Center – a web platform designed to connect VARs and ISVs to providers of innovative solutions